An interesting scene played itself out at the Mariners Centre in Yarmouth earlier this year.
On a sunny, but chilly, March 31 in the parking lot of the local arena, minor hockey players of various ages spent the morning playing street hockey in several make-shift play surfaces. A short distance away people, also of various ages, stood in line at the box office, waiting to purchase tickets for what was the hottest show in town – the Yarmouth Mariners’ playoff run. Many of these people had been camped out in the parking lot overnight.
That day, as the community of Yarmouth waited to hear if it had been successful in its bid to become Kraft Hockeyville, the Mariners – having come back from a 3-1 series deficit – were playing in Game 7 of the MHL’s Bent Division final.
It’s where everyone wanted to be. Those that couldn’t get into the sold-out arena gathered by the hundreds at a local hotel to watch the game on a large screen.
That evening, the Mariners did indeed win the MHL Bent Division championship.
Yarmouth itself, on the other hand, didn't win the Hockeyville title. The community, having received 1,655,475 votes, finished fourth.
So Yarmouth wasn’t Hockeyville.
At least not officially.
Because on that day, you would have been hard pressed to find any evidence Yarmouth isn't a die-hard hockey town.
In fact, evidence of this plays itself out continuously. Local minor hockey rep team families will pack up their cars at the crack of dawn to drive five or six hours to another part of the province to play a hockey game. And they just shrug off the drive because being located at the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia, it’s just what Yarmouth families do.
Even the NHL’s New York Islanders recognized the town is head over heels for hockey when they made Yarmouth the site of their training camps in 20.
Inside the Mariners Centre are two seats reserved for Yarmouth’s super fans, Dorothy and Ernie Hatfield. The couple is almost as constant a fixture at the Mariners Centre as the ice surface itself. They come out to watch any level of hockey being played whether it’s Atom, Peewee, Bantam, high school, Junior A or men’s league.
But beyond the Hatfields, the sport of hockey does not lack for interest in the seaside town. For years, nearly dating back to the start of the Junior A franchise 10 years ago, the Yarmouth Mariners have enjoyed some the highest attendance numbers in the Maritime Hockey League, in many cases more than doubling the number of fans that show up in other barns.
Since the season got underway this fall, Mariners games have all been played in front of nearly sell-out crowds of 1,400 and 1,500 fans.
So why is this?
Well, for one thing the team has gotten off to a hot start, sitting near the top of the Bent Division and finding a spot among the national top 20 rankings. But it goes beyond this.
“I think one, it is because of where we’re located,” said Mariners head coach Laurie Barron. “We don’t compete against any other major centres or other teams like the Halifax Mooseheads in the ‘Q’ or university teams, so it’s a real feel for our team, or, as the community sees it, for ‘their’ team.”
The team is also very much involved in the community. Players visit local schools to promote reading and literacy with students. They buddy up weekly with youth in the community who have physical or mental challenges in a program called Icy Knights. And the team supports many other causes.
“I think that the team is involved so much in the community and gets out in the community that people get to know them on a personal side,” Barron added. And that just helps to grow the affinity that the community has for this team.
In street hockey games across Yarmouth, kids aren’t just pretending to be NHL players, they’re also pretending to be Mariners. They want to be the Matt Tomahs, Charles Grants, Mathieu Pompeis and Colin Campbells of tomorrow.
And who could blame them?
During the Mariners playoff run in the spring – a run that brought them all the way to the third overtime in Game 7 of the MHL final, a game eventually won by the Woodstock Slammers – Campbell described the feeling he had during Game 6 when the team, once again having come back from a 3-1 series deficit, pushed the series to another winner-take-all Game 7.
“I sat on the bench and just looked up into the crowd to soak it all in, it felt like I was dreaming. It’s a hockey experience I’ll never forget,” he said. “Just seeing a sold-out rink full of the best fans in the league cheering so loud, it sent chills through my body. I may never experience something like that again. In all my years of hockey, that game had the best atmosphere of any game I have ever played in.”
And that’s what players coming to Yarmouth for the World Junior A Challenge have to look forward to.