AYLESBURY, Sask. – Football fans pull off the highway every Saskatchewan Roughriders game day and spill from buses, limos, cars and trucks to say “hi” to Lana Hodgins, one of the 40 residents of speck-sized Aylesbury.
The hamlet is on Highway 11, the main route between Saskatoon and Regina, and Hodgins owns, with brother Lyle, the Aylesbury Hotel.
Inside that 85-year-old hotel is the Elephant Bar. When you climb the stairs on game day, walk through the door, you’ll see a green-clad throng. Attire runs from jerseys to watermelon headwear to face-paint.
If it’s really busy, patrons might even step behind the bar to help out.
There’s also a jar on the bar, stuffed with money from patrons, because Hodgins, 59, is dying and they badly want to help her out.
Hodgins was diagnosed over the summer with advanced cervical cancer, after which she expressed her wish to at least stay around through Grey Cup. It looks like she’ll reach the goal.
“We have a lot of fun here, a lot of costumes coming through, and I feel like I’ve been at (the game),” she said Sunday before the West Division semifinal against the B.C. Lions.
The people who were in the bar on Sunday spent the previous 90 minutes dodging and passing each other on the highway on their way to Regina. But with an hour left on their journey they stopped briefly to mingle.
A Roughriders flag was laid out and people were signing it with a black marker. When they all left on their collective trek to Mosaic Stadium, the flag went up on the ceiling along with dozens of other inked flags from previous home dates.
Walls in the bar are papered with photos of green-clad fans who have stopped in over the years, the images stretching on and on. Sometimes people play a game where they invite friends who have never been to the bar before to try to find their picture in the sea of faces.
Hodgins’ cousins, Wayne and Cliff Shaw, played for the Roughriders a few decades ago and won the 1966 Grey Cup together. Wayne’s old No. 50 jersey occupies a place of pride on the wall.
Hodgins and her brother bought the Aylesbury Hotel in 2000, and added “Elephant” to the bar’s name because Lana loves elephants. Pachyderms are a second, but still prominent, decorating theme inside the bar.
On Sunday, Hodgins added two more elephants to her collection, courtesy of patrons. She estimates there are more than a thousand in the place, of all shapes, colours and sizes.
“They’re big and majestic and they’re loyal, and they’re supposed to bring good luck,” she said, before adding with a chuckle: “Mine hasn’t quite kicked in yet.”
Hodgins has had one round of radiation therapy and is bracing for another. Not everything is covered financially and her customers are banding together to raise money for her treatment.
“We both know what’s going to happen, and we’re both going to handle it when the time comes,” her brother Lyle said quietly in a side room, his solemn voice in marked contrast to the joyous noise coming from the bar.
“It’s not going to go away.”
Curtis Ulmer, from Saskatoon, pulled the brother and sister together for a photo with someone from across the pond who was heading to her first-ever CFL game. Ulmer, a Roughriders’ season ticket holder, has become a good friend since he first stopped in five years ago on the advice of a pal.
“Ever since then, every time, it has to be a stopping point,” Ulmer said. “Even if you’re not going to have a drink, you stop in. If you stay overnight, on the way back, you stop in and say “hi.”
“It’s just the feel of the place. Rider Nation? This is it.”
Hodgins says the place wouldn’t stay alive without the Roughriders fans — that the five months they barrel down the highway during summer and fall sustains the Elephant Bar during the winter and spring. The upcoming Grey Cup game in Regina is a special bonus.
Fans heading back to their vehicles seek Hodgins out, say farewell, wish her well, and then drive off to the game.
“Then I can sit down and watch the game,” Hodgins said.