Ask most any Canadian kid how they got their start playing hockey and outside of Vancouver you are likely to get a common answer: the pond.
But like the move to curved sticks, times change. Anyone can now learn moves from watching YouTube videos or playing the latest NHL video games. They form their skills in structured practices or systematic play from the age of six.
It is in the rise of four current Fort St. John Huskies that there comes a comfort in the old way—as just three years ago the group wasn’t even playing competitive hockey in the traditional sense, but either in the Buick rural league (a collection of teams from the outskirts of Fort St. John playing a couple times a week) or on ponds in their backyard.
Jared Lowen and Gary Loewen, a defenseman and forward from Altona, along with Geoff Dick and Tyler Buekert from Prespatou, make up the unique quartet, and take the hour or so long drive to town three times a week for hockey.
“They spent hours out there working on stuff getting better,” former coach Kevin Wollen said.
“The rural hockey (league) has such a wide variety of skill level that it is tough. But they really focused on playing a team game and learning the fundamentals of playing as a team and positioning. Added with the fact that (they) just love hockey, combined with a determination to be the best.”
“(They’ve) been a nice surprise,” Huskies assistant coach Todd Alexander added, attributing some of their success and love for the game to the construction of an arena in the community of Buick some 10 years ago.
“Now all of a sudden you’re starting to see this flux of players coming from (that area),” he said.
For 17-year-old rookie Lowen, who has earned top minutes on the Huskies’ backend, after getting into one game last year, the full-time jump has been manageable, albeit a long way from the backyard ice.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “(I) got a little taste of it last year. Super different than playing on the pond I guess.”
With a modest smile, he recalled the days before he suited up in organized hockey.
“Just playing with friends, playing hockey. There was not very much organization. We just got together and played some puck.”
Hockey is not complicated in its very essence, although there is a tendency to complicate it with systems and other minute details, when in reality—the concept has remained unchanged for a very long time. The team that puts the puck in the net the most wins.
That’s not lost on this group of four players who grew up about an hour so outside of Fort St. John. And they just keep excelling.
Winger Gary Loewen, with 10 points in 11 games this season, recently earned some praise from Alexander.
“He’s been doing fantastic. He finishes a lot of checks. Creating a lot of space for his centermen and his growth as a power forward is going to continue,” he said.
“He doesn’t say a lot in the dressing room, he just goes out and he minds his own business. He goes over the wall, he works hard and does what he’s supposed to do and his conditioning is coming along.”
To his credit, all Loewen has done is produce. The 18-year-old put up 34 points in 32 games with the Northeast B.C. and Yukon Midget Trackers last year. His answer on what has helped him make the jump this year?
“I’m into the game now, more comfortable now than I was at the beginning,” he said.
Unlike the process of getting comfortable, hard work is inherent. From each shift to every practice, Alexander said he’s seen the hard work pay off for Dick especially, who has quietly notched nine points in 11 games this year.
“He’s got a little more offensive upside to him,” Alexander said.
“He’s really starting to come into his own. He really worked on his outside edge early on in the season. Now, he’s starting to create space out there because of the work that he put in. It’s exciting to see what he’s starting to create.”
Add another rookie defenseman in Buekert into the mix, who has only played five games with the pups this season but earned a shutdown role quickly, you start to wonder if there’s something in the water.
And while individually each player has grown and had success this year, the biggest smile came when they mentioned the four players they’ve grown up around.
“I’ve played with these guys for 12 years,” Dick said.
“Since we started skating when we were about five. It’s pretty unique; you see a lot of local fans come out from where I’m from (too). It’s a big deal. Everywhere I look there’s a lot faces that I recognize.”
Along with the four players locked into the Huskies lineup, their small community support has also become a staple at Huskies’ home games.
Look along the penalty box side at North Peace Arena, where nearly 100 new Huskies fans sit and obverse the action. It has pushed the team attendance to almost 500 fans a game.
The group has had a trial by fire early in the North West Junior Hockey League season and so far passed with flying colours. Success may be fun, but sharing it together matters just as much to them.
“Lots of fun. Couldn’t imagine it without them. The driving back and forth to practice three times a week, it’s definitely lots of fun sharing some memories with them,” Lowen said with a huge smile.
With a bond that extends beyond the rink, there is also a simplicity that comes with their old school approach to the game that has led to the early success.
“Fun, it was always fun,” Buekert said. “Still is. You want to win and when you do it’s fun.”