Beyond the beast
 

Beyond the beast

Almost a year after a runaway fire devastated Fort McMurray, the city is rebuilding. And its Oil Barons have become a talisman the entire community can rally around.


 
Former NHLer and Fort McMurray goalie coach Mike Brodeur lost his house in the May 2016 fire. (Colin Way)

(Colin Way)

Twenty-one young men, sweat dripping from their battered and bruised faces, stand in a circle with their arms stretched across each other’s shoulders. Teeth are missing and blood has been lost; but they’ve won. They revel together in their blue and gold sweaters, yelping in wild hoots and hollers of victory until their leader speaks and the pack falls to quiet deference. Brandon Ralph’s message is simple: They did it, sure, but not well enough. The captain and leading scorer praises their goalie and names him the game MVP, handing him a helmet from the Fort McMurray Fire Department. The moment would be almost knightly, if not for the vulgar chant they belt out in unison — a post-win tradition and a reminder that this is, after all, just another Junior A dressing room.

But look around and you’ll find hints that, perhaps, there’s more to this than Slap Shot antics. Three and a half decades of local hockey lore are plastered across this room. Rows of faded photographs and newspaper articles line the walls. There you’ll find the big names: Chris Phillips and Scottie Upshall, the Oil Barons who made it big. And there are the ones you won’t recognize. Some who went on to play major junior, college, overseas or in the minors — but found their glory here, in this northern Albertan boomtown.

Starting Dec. 30, the Oil Barons went on an undefeated streak of 19 games. (Colin Way)

Starting Dec. 30, the Oil Barons went on an undefeated streak of 19 games. (Colin Way)

Just above the door, right in the middle, there’s a photo with a guy doing the classic power-stop pose, labelled: “Tom Keca, Fort McMurray Oil Barons 1991–1992.” He was 20 then, fulfilling a childhood dream. And now he’s walking through the door — a little thicker and wiser, at 45 — and he isn’t too pleased. A quarter of a century after that picture, Keca is the head coach and general manager of the Junior A team he grew up watching and finally playing for. Last season, his first at the helm, the Oil Barons won just 10 games. But this year something’s changed.

The players break their huddle as he walks in the room. Keca’s team hasn’t lost in the New Year, and just extended its undefeated streak to 18 games by a seven-goal margin. But call-up goalie Chris Curr was forced to make 27 saves and that’s not good enough; not this year. And as the giddy players sit in their wooden cubbies, Keca lets them have it.

“What’s that movie where the guys make you stare at the pen and it erases your memory?” he says.

Men in Black?” a few offer, confused.

“It’s Men in Black Night,” Keca says. “’Cause I don’t want to watch that shit again.”

The boys in blue are silent now. Curfew is 1:00 a.m., Keca says, and the team needs to hustle to the lobby where dozens of young fans are lined up, waiting to get their autographs. A brief moment of quiet contemplation follows the coach’s departure before the customary celebration resumes. Standing at the end of the dressing room, Ralph hits play on a sound system and Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” fills the room: “One… two… three-four-five….” Toby Shattler, the team comedian affectionately known as “Shittler”, hobbles to the beat despite wearing an air cast to treat a high-ankle sprain, and then grinds up against trainer Pete Spiers, a bleach-blond Guy Fieri–lookalike, as he tries to escape. Nearby, a small conga-line of players forms around the yellow Oil Barons logo painted on the floor. “Everybody in the car, so come on let’s ride.”

"ONE, TWO, THREE-FOUR-FIVE..." The Oil Barons have put winning first this season, but haven't forgotten to have fun along the way. (Colin Way)

“ONE, TWO, THREE-FOUR-FIVE…” The Oil Barons have put winning first this season, but haven’t forgotten to have fun along the way. (Colin Way)

Soon these Junior A heroes sit at a row of folding tables in the lobby of Fort McMurray’s Casman Centre, scribbling their names on the programs, hockey cards and sweaters produced by this shuffling row of giddy kids. Nearby there’s a display honouring the team’s Royal Bank Cup win of 2000 — the one national championship the team has won in its existence. They did it at home. That was 16-year-old Upshall’s team, revered here like the ’67 Leafs in Toronto.

Like those days of past glory, these are happy times for Oil Barons fans, even if coach Keca puts on a tough face to maintain some order with this roster of fun-loving goofballs. Last May, a raging wildfire ravaged this northern Alberta city, forcing the evacuation of its 80,000 citizens who left not knowing what they’d come back to — or if there would be anything left to come back to at all. The fire was ferocious and fast. They called it “the Beast.” It devoured the forest that surrounds Fort Mac and close to 2,400 homes and buildings. Entire neighbourhoods were reduced to ashes. In other parts of town, seemingly random strips of homes were lost while the flames skipped adjacent streets. When the fire was finally contained, some families returned to rebuild their lives while others were compelled to start again elsewhere. Those that remain have tried to find a sense of normalcy after the trauma the city endured.

In the shadow of the Beast, the success of a local hockey team should seem trivial— just another piece of local pride easily sacrificed in the magnitude of this destruction. But here we are, 20 minutes after a Saturday night drubbing and the line of young fans waiting to meet the Oil Barons still stretches from the tables they now sit at, across the lobby to the door.

Maybe it’s not so odd for this community to care as much about this team as it does. The Oil Barons are, after all, a reflection of them. They’re a roster of players who’ve largely come from elsewhere searching for opportunity. There are a handful of Oil Barons from Alberta, but only a few lived here before they joined the team. Fort McMurray is built like that, too. From afar, it’s often viewed as a place to find temporary work. But for those born and raised here, for those who put down roots here, this place is home. It’s a strong and proud community that faced the Beast bravely, and is still fighting its way towards a new sense of normal. After winning just 10 games in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in 2015–16, the Oil Barons became a championship contender this season, finishing atop their division for the first time in a decade with a 44-13-3 record. “Realistically I didn’t think we were going to be this good,” says Keca, leaning back in the black chair behind the desk in his office. “That’s a testament to the players that we have.”

The remarkable turnaround came via some roster tweaks, but was also borne from a renewed sense of purpose. Fueled by the indomitable spirit of the town they play for, rebuilding from its own ashes, the Oil Barons set out to show that nothing in Fort McMurray stays down for long.

REBUILDING BLOCK Keca went to work between his first and second seasons as head coach, bringing in two locals to help return the Oil Barons to title contention. (Colin Way)

REBUILDING BLOCK
Keca went to work between his first and second seasons as head coach, bringing in two locals to help return the Oil Barons to title contention. (Colin Way)

Tom Keca grew up watching the Oil Barons play. More than anyone, he knows how passionate the community can get about a winning team. As much as it’s an Oil Town, Fort Mac is a hockey town. Keca played minor hockey in the Casman Centre. It was where the team would meet before embarking on those gruelling road trips to games as far as seven hours away, with his dad behind the bus wheel, because no teams would agree to come to Fort McMurray to play. It was where he first dreamed of being an Oil Baron. And where he fulfilled that goal, pulling a blue and gold sweater over his head for a single season 25 years ago. It was the place where he first followed his path in the game, returning as an assistant coach, a position he held for a decade before opportunity moved the family nearly six hours away to Lloydminster when a head coaching job opened up. He and his wife, Erin, did their best to get settled there. But it wasn’t home. And after three years away, they returned to Fort McMurray and Keca went back to being an assistant. And when he finally got the chance to take over as head coach before the 2015–16 season, it was a dismal failure.

Last May, not two months removed from that first 10-win campaign, he sat in his office reviewing recruits who might be selected by a rival American league on what had been a crystal-clear, blue-sky morning. The fire burning through the forest just outside of town was under control now, he assumed. The smoke from a day earlier had cleared. The blaze was moving west, away from the city. It wasn’t even on his mind. Then Spiers, the trainer, bolted in.

Across the parking lot at the Casman Centre, above the row of homes on the street where Keca lived as a teenager, the sky was flooded with rising streaks of orange and grey. From his view in the enclave of Thickwood Heights, it looked like everything to the south was on fire. The wind had brought the blaze rushing back towards the city. It had jumped the Athabasca River — a gap of about 200 m — and burned through the Fort McMurray Golf Club and the forest beyond it, moving towards Thickwood like a line of lit gunpowder.

(Colin Way)

(Colin Way)

At the same time, in the south-end neighbourhood of Beacon Hill, Mike Brodeur, the Oil Barons goalie coach, was scanning the basement apartment of his wife’s parents’ house. They’d moved back to Melissa’s hometown looking for a new start after a series of injuries put an end to Brodeur’s pro hockey career. They didn’t have much. There was about $30,000 in suits left over from his days chasing the NHL through the minors in cities like Norfolk, Greenville, Augusta, Toledo, Pensacola, Binghamton, Elmira, Las Vegas and Orlando.

There were sweaters and painted masks from each of those teams along the way. And mementos from his finest moments, like the plaque the Ottawa Senators gave him after his first NHL shutout — 37 saves at Madison Square Garden, facing Henrik Lundqvist. He’d lose those things in the fire, but his family — Melissa, their infant daughter and four-year-old son, and four dogs — were there with him in his Yukon as he pulled out early that afternoon onto Highway 63, the only route south out of town. FedEx dropped off a box of hockey sweaters for his goaltending-school pupils that morning. They’d burn along with everything else.

A few streets away, Steven Garcia also had to decide what to save and what to leave behind. A power forward, he’d returned home to Fort McMurray after spending several years playing Junior A hockey across the country in places from Penticton, B.C., to Bobcaygeon, Ont. The tall, broad-shouldered 22-year-old moved back home to his parents’ house that March ready to start something new. Driving around town that day he saw the smoke rising and recalled his grandfather who used to fight forest fires. He knew it was getting bad. He called his mom, who was preparing to fly home to see her ailing mother in Newfoundland, and told her he’d meet her on the highway. At home, he had little time to decide what mattered. He settled on this parents’ wedding photos and a few items of clothing, and put the two family dogs in his truck. He headed for one exit to the Beacon Hill subdivision, but it was already on fire. He turned into gridlock trying to escape the other way. Garcia figured he wouldn’t escape if he waited, so he drove across a greenbelt and through two fences to create his own path to Highway 63.

Across the highway, in Gregoire, Shattler — the team joker — sat on the couch with his father in their living room while his mother rushed around the house packing in a panic. They thought she was overreacting and figured they didn’t really need to evacuate. After all, Shattler’s little sister was still at school. Shattler was back home after finishing his season with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s La Ronge Ice Wolves. He was used to small towns, having spent his youth in Saint-Augustin, Que., a small village on the border of Newfoundland and Labrador, before his family moved to Fort McMurray for work. Shattler hadn’t even played organized hockey before he was 12 because there was no organization to play for in Saint-Augustin. To his surprise he made the first team he played for in his new town, the AA Oil Barons (there’s no AAA in town), and one of the first teammates he met was Brandon Ralph. When Shattler and his dad finally climbed up onto their roof and saw the flames on the edge of Beacon Hill across the highway, Ralph was one of the first people he contacted.

“Realistically I didn’t think we were going to be this good. That’s a testament to the players that we have.”

“Boys, we’re getting evacuated,” Shattler wrote via group text-message.

Ralph was down in Fort Saskatchewan, just outside of Edmonton, getting in touch with family and friends back in Fort Mac. He was watching his hometown burn live on television and felt like he was going to throw up. His parents had moved to the city from Newfoundland three decades earlier, and seven of their siblings had followed. He had uncles, aunts and dozens of cousins there. With each flash of the flames through his screen he worried that they wouldn’t be able to get out in time. Ralph grew up in the Wood Buffalo neighbourhood, which was just uphill from where the fire jumped the Athabasca River. He spent hours in that backyard playing hockey on the rink his father made every year, and when it was cold enough he could skate along the icy streets to visit his friends.

It was there, at that house, that his uncle Ivan had surprised him at Christmas with his first Oil Barons sweater when he was eight. It bore the number 17—Ivan’s number from when he played—and had a “C” patch on the chest. Ralph promised his uncle that he’d wear 17 for the rest of his life. He was a regular at Oil Barons games as a kid, always sitting in the top row to the left of the home bench, because the arena felt huge from that vantage point. He’d watched playoff runs where the rink was packed and the crowd was wild, fueled by beer, hurling insults at whatever sad opponents thought they stood a chance against the mighty Oil Barons. He played minor hockey for the Junior Oil Barons—known as the JOB—until he was 14 and had to move south to follow his hockey dream, playing AAA in Fort Saskatchewan. That dream carried No. 17 to the Edmonton Oil Kings in the CHL, where he won the Memorial Cup in 2014 shortly after his uncle Ivan had been taken by cancer at 51.

All of those memories of home flooded through Ralph’s mind as he watched the news cycle images of destruction in Fort Mac. His parents had moved out of town and sold the home he grew up in, and now it was sure to be gone, he thought. His aunts and uncles could lose their homes, too, if not their lives.

Then Shattler — Ralph’s childhood friend — sent him a text while he was trying to get out of town on the slow-moving road.

“My phone is going to die, I don’t have a charger, but me and my mom are in the truck,” he typed. “Traffic is stopped. If I don’t make it out, I love you guys.”

Keca was one of the last in his subdivision to leave. Despite his fear of heights Keca climbed up to his roof in the late afternoon, watering down his house with a hose—hoping to dampen the kindling it would become if the stretch of forest in his backyard caught fire. Then, around 5:00 p.m., he and Erin put their three kids in their SUV and set out for a friend’s place about 45 minutes north of the city. They inched north in a traffic jam that saw them move just a block in two hours. Keca looked in his rear-view mirror and saw fire and smoke in the sky, and wondered what he would do if the fire reached them while they sat there in traffic. “Do we get the kids out and run?” he thought. And the fear set in. “Where would we go? We’re surrounded by trees.”

That’s when an officer pulled up and shouted that they had opened the highway south, and if they went now they could turn around and head the other way. Keca didn’t hesitate — his parents lived in Beaumont to the south. He pulled a U-turn over the meridian and booked it down the empty street with the fire blazing on their right. They drove through Thickwood’s main corridor past the Casman Centre. He wondered if he’d ever see it again.

(Colin Way)

(Colin Way)

It took two months to control the Beast. It burned through nearly 600,000 hectares, from the area around Fort McMurray all the way into Saskatchewan. During that time the city’s residents remained scattered across the province, updating satellite images of their neighbourhoods, trying to find out if their homes had been destroyed or spared. When he returned, Brodeur found the street light next to where his family’s house once stood. In its ghostly glow, he found a pile of ashes covered in what looked like pieces of white papier mâche sitting in a black field once lined with houses.

The fire seemed to have been more selective on Garcia’s street, where several homes still stood — but his was gone. His family would move back to town, renting a place together with plans to build a new home in the place their last one stood. In the trauma of losing his house, Garcia sought a job with the Oil Barons, resolving to stay rooted in the town he loved and to play a role in the effort to rebuild. He’s now the team’s video coach. “People talk about Fort McMurray as though it’s just an oil patch,” he says. “There’s actually a strong community here… Fort McMurray is strong and people do give a crap. That’s something that I hold dear to my heart: This is always going to be my home.”

FROM THE ASHES — Garcia lost his home in the fire, but gained a job as video coach with the Oil Barons in its aftermath. (Colin Way)

FROM THE ASHES — Garcia lost his home in the fire, but gained a job as video coach with the Oil Barons in its aftermath. (Colin Way)

When Keca learned that the Casman Centre was still standing, he didn’t think about hockey right away. He knew his family had a place to return to, but he also knew that place would never be the same. Hockey is small in the face of that. But then, hockey is what he knows. Hockey is family, friends and community. And so, if there was anything he could do to bring some sense of normalcy back to this place — some sense of local pride, as insignificant as it might be — then that was really the only thing he could do.

The players knew it, too. And even though many came from elsewhere, they felt like they were part of this place.

That summer, Ralph was released as an overager from the Everett Silvertips, where he’d been traded the season before. He got courted by dozens of Junior A teams across western Canada, including Fort Mac. After chatting with Keca about the possibility of joining the Oil Barons, he went to watch one of their pre-season games in Bonneville with his mother. He knew Fort McMurray had been dreadful the season before and there was no guarantee they’d be any better this year. But before the first period ended, Ralph had decided where he wanted to spend the final season of his junior-hockey career. “I know what I’m going to do, Mom,” he said, turning to her. “I’m going home.”

“People talk about Fort McMurray as though it’s just an oil patch. There’s actually a strong community here. People do give a crap.”

From the first game, it was clear that this season was going to be about much more than winning. The rink was packed, with the Red Cross providing free admission. The team prepared a pre-game salute to the first-responders who battled the Beast complete with fire trucks on the ice, drawing an emotional ovation. As the season went on and the team continued to win, more and more fans began filling the seats. Recently, after returning from a long and successful road trip, the players gathered to reflect on the year they’d had and on what they still hoped to accomplish. Ralph took the floor and tried to explain what the winning season had meant to him, not only as a player, but as a homegrown kid—and that even though his teammates came from other places, they knew what it meant to carry the pride of Fort McMurray. “I want to say ‘Thank you,’” the captain said through tears.

It was a dusty room and several others wiped their eyes as they spoke about the fire and about what they’d seen this city do in nearly a year since, working to rebuild. They wanted to reflect the pride of this place. They wanted the rink to thunder like it once did. They wanted beers to flow and insults to fly at their opponents. They wanted this place to come to life. An undefeated streak and a first-place finish were great, but they wanted more. They wanted articles about their winning season displayed in the lobby of their arena, fading through the decades as new generations of fans tell tall tales of what they did.

(Colin Way)

(Colin Way)

Twenty minutes before the puck drops on the Oil Barons’ last home game of the regular season — two days after their blow-out win on Saturday night — there are already dozens of ‘Ralph’ sweaters in the Casman Centre stands. Down in the locker room, the team sits in silence, waiting for Keca to make his pre-game speech. He’s talking before he gets in the room, arriving in mid-sentence like he needed a running start. But his typical pre-game bluster softens near the end. “We owe this one to our fans,” he says, “because they’ve stuck with us all year.”

The Oil Barons whoop and shout, and Ralph calls out the starting lineup. They charge out of the room and onto the ice into the wild roar of a packed rink on Family Day Monday afternoon. The Sherwood Park Crusaders don’t stand much of a chance. This rink is alive, and it will consume them.

Brodeur watches over the play of Oil Barons netminder Eric Szudor from the stands. He’d spent the morning at the rink, working with a small group of goalies, getting in whatever time he can with the clients who remain while he’s in town for the team’s home stretches, before making the seven-hour drive back to Calgary, where his family now lives. Brodeur stays with the family of two of his young goalie-school clients while he’s here — a family of goalies. This stretch of life had been hard to begin with as his friends pushed on with their NHL careers while his dreams halted. And then came the fire. “With all the ups and downs with my career and my injuries, we felt like we were just building everything back,” he says. “And then you get everything swiped out from under you again.”

It will take a lot to get back to where the family were just getting to, but Brodeur has been down many times before. When fans from the cities he’s played in over the years heard about their old goalie’s ordeal, they reached out to offer support. Several sent sweaters they’d collected from his time with their teams; nine different ones arrived. He cried with each time a new one showed up, for almost two weeks straight. But there are still deep wounds to heal. His five-year-old son tries to carry his new toys with him whenever he leaves the house, worried that he’ll never see them again. It’s hard to tell where the future will take his family next, but he hopes it’ll be here, rebuilding the life they were starting. “You get back up and try ’er again,” he says, repeating a mantra he’s said many times in his life. “Adversity just makes you stronger.”

Down on the ice, the Oil Barons dominate the Crusaders. Ryan Cox rifles a shot, bar down, blocker side, from the hashmarks late in the first to give Fort Mac a 2–0 lead. Later, the fans erupt when Ralph hammers a Crusader into the boards behind the net, and a brief post-whistle tussle ensues. A lady in a blue coat aggressively rings a bell after Brett Edwards slips in the Oil Barons’ fourth goal of the night on a partial breakaway to put a cap on a 4–1 win, and a father with two young sons, all clad in Oil Barons gear, clap and cheer beside her. The win pushes the Oil Barons undefeated streak to 19 games and widens their lead atop the division. It would be snapped later that week, but the team would go on to win the north division and get a bye through the first round of the playoffs, where they’ll hope to continue their miracle run. When the buzzer sounds on the Oil Barons’ Family Day victory, they salute the crowd, sticks in the air. A row of young fans push up against the glass next to the gate as the players leave the ice.

In the dressing room once more, they form another circle, shout another vulgar cheer and award the sacred firefighter’s helmet. “It’s only going to get harder as we move forward,” Keca says, reminding his team that each victory is only a small part of a much bigger goal. And, as always, Lou Bega plays him out.

BARON-MANIA — Fort McMurray supported their Junior A heroes all season, with crowd sizes growing along the way. (Colin Way)

BARON-MANIA — Fort McMurray supported their Junior A heroes all season, with crowd sizes growing along the way. (Colin Way)

Ten minutes later the autograph line again stretches across the lobby as the Oil Barons enter. One kid, wearing big, round glasses and dressed in a white, blue and gold sweater covered in permanent-marker signatures, has a small briefcase full of cards that he hopes to add to the collection. The players take their seats, and the ritual begins.

As he scribbles his signature and poses for photos, Ralph thinks back to the many days he spent in the same line. He was a quiet kid, too shy and star-struck to speak to the players, so he’d just hand each a card and hope they’d sign. They always did. The sweater he wears today is just a bigger version of the one he wore then. There’s another, just like it, in front of him—and several more in line, as another Fort McMurray generation leans in to find its heroes.


 

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