WINDSOR, N.S. — Mother Nature may have thrown the organizers of the 2019 Legends of Hockey Long Pond Classic a curveball, but that didn’t prevent the popular event from taking place.
The eighth annual fundraiser for the Windsor Hockey Heritage Society was held Jan. 25-27, with the main event, a day of shinny featuring celebrity hockey stars, held indoors as the ice conditions at Long Pond — the fabled Cradle of Hockey — had deteriorated due to warmer than usual winter weather.
Despite the move, those who came to rub shoulders with retired National Hockey League legends were star-struck, some having the chance to play alongside their favourites.
“It’s just a neat experience getting to play with all of these guys who have so much hockey knowledge,” said Avon View Avalanche hockey player Jayce Phillips.
He took the ice with Chris Nilan (of the Montreal Canadiens) on his team.
“I didn’t know he was going to be on our team,” said Phillips after his first of three games.
“My grandfather, last night, was getting me psyched up and all excited to play with him because he told me all of these stories when he used to watch him on TV,” said Phillips, adding he was asked to make sure he shook Nilan’s hand and expressed what a great player he was.
Now, Phillips will have stories of his own to tell his grandfather, Buddy (Claude) Rogers.
For Phillips, who plays defence with the Windsor high school team, the highlight of the festival was watching the legends play.
“It’s getting to see these guys in action, getting to see them move the puck around. It’s great.”
The event featured such stars as Nilan, Al Iafrate (Toronto Maple Leafs), Ron Duguay (New York Rangers), Darius Kasparaitis (Pittsburgh Penguins), Darren Langdon (New York Rangers), Chris Kotsopoulos (Toronto Maple Leafs), John Glenn LeBlanc (Winnipeg Jets), Dennis Maruk (Washington Capitals), and John Leclair (Montreal Canadiens).
Nilan, also known as Knuckles in the NHL, retired in 1992 with 2,670 career penalty minutes — a Habs team record.
The Boston resident said he often helps out at fundraising events and said while he’s not sure if Windsor is the Birthplace of Hockey — there’s multiple cities that lay claim to the title and he hasn’t had time to research it — the people here are the highlight.
“I started my career in Montreal but I was sent to Halifax in the American Hockey League and I played half of my first pro season in Halifax in 1979,” said Nilan.
“I love the people from Nova Scotia. I’ve travelled all through the province after the past 20 years after I retired, playing in different cities, raising money. The people are so friendly,” he continued.
“Eastern Canada has some of the nicest people in the world, never mind in the country but in the world.”
Feeling like a part of Windsor
This was the second year that retired NHLer Ron Duguay made an appearance at the classic, and this time, he brought his son, Noah, with him to share in the experience. Duguay played 12 years in the NHL, and was named one of the top 50 all-time New York Rangers.
Duguay said he was drawn back to Windsor because of how magical it was to skate on Long Pond in 2018.
“Being the first time setting foot on the pond, it brought back memories for me as a kid growing up,” said Duguay.
“Having played in the National Hockey League, I felt like (I was) tapping into the history of the pond so I was emotionally attached to it and I kind of envisioned the kids back then having played,” he said.
A second reason he wanted to help out with the fundraiser was because of the local fans.
“The people here are so kind, so appreciative of us coming.”
The games of shinny had to be played at the Hants Exhibition Arena instead of on Long Pond this year, however, the opening ceremonies were still held there.
While Duguay had hoped to skate outdoors, he said he could play anywhere.
“For us, ice is ice, no matter where it is. There’s a puck, there’s ice, there’s a net — we love playing anywhere.”
There was an abundance of young hockey players watching the games and studying the legends, trying to find a formula that could get them to the NHL.
Duguay said landing a position in the NHL is like pursuing any other career choice — to be successful, you have to work for it.
His advice: “The more work you put into it, the better you’re going to get at it. While you’re doing it, be happy; enjoy it. Always push yourself to know your weaknesses and work on your weaknesses. It’s easy to work on your strengths but understand your weakness and work on that.”
Ten-year-old Lindsay MacDonald was one of the young hockey fans at the rink. After meeting Nilan, she said it was ‘pretty cool’ to meet some of the stars.
MacDonald, whose favourite player is Auston Matthews, has been skating for three years with the West Hants Warriors.
Barry Blyth, who is from Chipman, N.B., but winters in Florida, said he had such a fantastic time in 2018 that he wanted to return in 2019.
“The hockey players were fantastic — but the people were fantastic. I got treated really well; exceptional. It made me feel like I was a part of Windsor,” said Blyth of his 2018 visit.
And although his scheduled eight hour flight wound up taking 32 hours, Blyth was still in good spirits and enjoying what the weekend event had to offer.
He said the draft, which occurred Jan. 25, was an exciting new aspect to the classic — his team got fourth pick, and they selected Kotsopoulos to be on their team.
“It’s just to see the ex-NHL players, that’s the big thing. Al Iafrate is one of my favourite players because I’m a Leafs fan but they’re all nice guys,” said Blyth. “They’re friendly. They’re down to earth. You’d think they grew up in Windsor.”
This year, he invited his son, Mike, to come play a few rounds of shinny with the hockey stars of yesteryear.
And the more Blyth learns about Windsor, the more he wants to come back. He’s already put the October pumpkin festival on his bucket list and intends to check it out.
The event also features a banquet, ‘hot stove’ chat and auction on the night of Jan. 26 and a breakfast on Jan. 27. The three-day festival is the Windsor Hockey Heritage Society’s major fundraiser, with all money raised going to support research, maintaining and displaying artifacts, and promoting Windsor’s contribution to the sport.
- Hundreds flock to Windsor' annual Long Pond Hockey Heritage Classic, rub shoulders with NHL legends
- NHL greats Duguay, Trottier coming to Windsor's annual Long Pond Hockey Heritage Classic
- A meeting to 'cherish': Toronto Maple Leafs legend visits Windsor to much fanfare
- World class rink in the works for Windsor
- Third Long Pond Heritage Classic a sunny success