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TINA COMEAU: Yarmouth is a hockey town where we welcome our Mariners and our hearts break for the Humboldt Broncos

Junior hockey a way of life for hockey towns.
The Yarmouth Mariners celebrating a goal on the road in Game 4 in their playoff series with the South Shore Lumberjacks. TINA COMEAU

Vanguard editor Tina Comeau expresses her thoughts as the hockey community shares in the grief of a tragedy.

YARMOUTH, N.S. – In Bridgewater Friday evening, April 6, it was evident how much support there is in the community for the Yarmouth Jr. A Mariners.

The team was playing Game 4 of their division final against the South Shore Lumberjacks and led the series 3-0. A win for the Mariners would end the series, make them the MHL Eastlink South Division Champions and advance them to the league championship final.

The last three playoff games in Yarmouth had been sellouts, with 1,501 hockey fans at the Mariners Centre. There were 1,423 fans inside the arena in Bridgewater on April 6 and a friend and I who had travelled the two hours to Bridgewater to watch the game estimated that at least 400 of those fans were from Yarmouth.

Yarmouth fans in Bridgewater to support and cheer on the Mariners during Game 4 of their playoff series with the South Shore Lumberjacks.
Yarmouth fans in Bridgewater to support and cheer on the Mariners during Game 4 of their playoff series with the South Shore Lumberjacks.

You couldn’t look at a section of seating in the arena and not see people wearing Mariners hoodies, Mariners jerseys (including the Pink in the Rink jerseys and even an old vintage Mariners jersey from back in the day), or recognize the faces (and the accents) from Yarmouth.

As you walked around the arena and Yarmouth people spotted Yarmouth people, you could see they were appreciative of the support the other person was giving the team by being there.

There was thunderous applause and cheers from the fans when the Mariners took to the ice – so much so that many Bridgewater fans might have felt they were at the Mariners Centre instead.

The Mariners have a huge fan base but these hockey players don’t just play games in front of us, they become a part of the community. Some attend our high schools. Some NSCC. They help mentor minor hockey kids on the ice. They attend school events. They deliver gingerbread houses to seniors at Christmas. They spend a part of every week being buddies to youth and young adults who have disabilities and special needs through the Icy Knights program. And the list goes on.

And the team provides so many with a social outing when people gather at games to spend time with family, friends and fans to simply have fun watching a game of hockey.

The parents of these players trust that the hockey club, and Yarmouth itself, will look after their kids, who range in age from 16 to 20. And when you talk with these parents, they speak glowingly and appreciatively of the way the community supports and welcomes their kids. And this happens year, after year, after year.

The billet families who open their homes to these players for the season truly become an extension of the players’ families. They become the Yarmouth moms and dads of these hockey players and treat them like their own children.

When my kids were younger they’d wear the jerseys of their favourite Mariners at games at the rink. My son Jacob was a big Matt Oxtoby fan and Justin’s favourite was Ryan Penney.

Young hockey players in our community have always looked up to the Mariners. They want to be Mariners. I remember when Jacob was seven or eight years old and there was a sporting goods store in town that sold a lot of Mariners memorabilia. He asked me one day, “Mom, if I want to be a Mariner do I just go to the store and tell them I’m going to be one?”

I explained that isn’t quite how it worked.

When my kids were five-year-olds and in Timbits hockey, their Timbits teams played during intermissions of Mariners games. But the young kids on these teams actually thought it was the other way around.

“Wow!” they’d exclaim. “The Mariners are playing at our game!”

Minor hockey teams are always excited to rent the Mariners bus and travel in style to some of their games. When you’re based in Yarmouth whether you’re a peewee team or a junior A team, there’s a lot of travel involved. The parents like the bus because it is a break from driving. The kids like it because it makes them feel like the “big” hockey players.

It also allows for a good bonding experience when you are travelling to a game together, as opposed to in 15-or-more separate vehicles.

A tweet from former Yarmouth Mariner Josh Desmond.
A tweet from former Yarmouth Mariner Josh Desmond.

So you can imagine the bonding that takes place when the Mariners themselves travel from Yarmouth to Bridgewater, Truro, Summerside, Edmundston.

Through my job at the newspaper, over the years I’ve gotten to know a lot of the Mariners on a first-name basis as opposed to just their jersey number. Some I’m friends with on Facebook. One is Derek Fisher of Kamloops, B.C., who played with the Mariners from 2004 to 2006. The internet wasn’t as big back then and I always felt bad that his parents – who I had met and were super nice – didn’t get to see him play, so I’d email them photos of Derek after the games.

When Derek got married in September 2016, I extended congratulations on his Facebook page. Derek mentioned that when his parents had been going through old family photos they had come across the collection of Mariners hockey pictures I had sent them 10 years earlier. He said they were included in a display at his wedding.

His dad Mark chimed into the discussion, saying Derek’s junior hockey experience in Yarmouth had a significant impact on Derek and the family. So of course, he said, they would include photos of what was an important time in Derek’s life on an important day of his life.

For many hockey players, junior hockey is their last hurrah in their hockey careers before they go on to have families and hold jobs.

For others, junior hockey propels them on to college, university or pro hockey. They dream, even, to the NHL.

For all it is a brotherhood.

I’ve seen many end-of-season, tearful embraces on the ice of these big, strong, tough hockey players that melted my heart.

There’s a saying, “Once a Mariner always a Mariner.” That is evident when handshakes and hugs are extended in the lobby of the Mariners Centre to players on rival teams who once were part of the Mariners lineup.

It’s a saying you could insert any other hockey team name in: Once a Lumberjack … Once a Rambler …. Once a Wildcat …

Once a Bronco…

The Mariners didn’t win their game on Friday. They were edged out by South Shore 2-1 to extend the series.

As the players and their fans started making their way back to Yarmouth many heard word of the absolutely heartbreaking hockey tragedy in another part of the country. A bus was carrying the Humboldt Broncos junior team to Game 5 of their playoff series against the Nipawin Hawks in northeastern Saskatchewan. A truck collided with the bus. Fifteen people – hockey players, team staff, a radio reporter ­– were killed and the others on the bus injured.

Social media was immediately awash with an outpouring of grief, sadness, disbelief and condolences from one end of the country to the other, and from around the world – including here in Yarmouth. We’re a hockey town. We understand how profound a loss this is.

A Canadian junior team’s makeup often includes players from many communities and provinces, and sometimes even from parts of the United States. Those are their homes, but so too is the community that adopts these players for the better part of a year.

And so the season’s cheers go well beyond any home arena and in a case like this tragedy, the hurt is far-reaching. In homes and arenas everywhere, hearts ache for the lives lost and their loved ones.

A friend in Yarmouth who is a hockey mom and a Mariners billet mom posted on social media that the tragedy hits close to home.

It does. And for some especially close. The head coach of the Yarmouth Mariners, Laurie Barron, was friends with the head coach of the Humboldt Broncos, Darcy Haugan, who is among those who died.

I have no doubt that on the Mariners bus coming home from Bridgewater on Friday night there were many thoughts of Game 5.

Not of the Game 5 to be played Sunday in Yarmouth, but rather of the one that wasn’t played Friday in Saskatchewan for the most heartbreaking of reasons.

As a friend posted on Facebook, “I think we are all Humboldt Broncos fans today.”

A tweet from the Humboldt Broncos during a happy time of their season.
A tweet from the Humboldt Broncos during a happy time of their season.

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