If you dig deep enough on the City of Thunder Bay web site, you can unearth a seven-page document detailing the local athletes and officials who have represented the Ontario city at the Olympic Games, both summer and winter.
Hockey’s contribution to that list numbers 26, including players, coaches, managers and officials – some familiar to the everyday hockey fan and some, well, not so much.
For every Eric Staal or Greg Johnson there is a Percy Nicklin or Gerald Davy, both of whom, for the sake of Thunder Bay hockey trivia, won gold at the 1936 Winter Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany – for Great Britain.
In 2010 the 27th name has been added, as Haley Irwin made her Olympic debut with Canada’s women team last Saturday, joining Staal, who was on Canada’s 2006 men’s roster as an alternate but is making his first on-ice Olympic appearance in Vancouver.
“It was such an amazing experience,” Irwin says of stepping onto the ice at Canada Hockey Place in front of more than 16,000 red-and-white-clad Canadian fans. “I’ve never heard anything so loud, and to be able to finally get out there and play, after the long road it has been to get here, was so much fun.”
It is a road both Irwin and Staal, along with all of Thunder Bay, hope ends in gold. A win would make Irwin the second Thunder Bay native in as many Olympics to bring home women’s hockey gold – Katie Weatherston helped Canada to victory in 2006 – while a gold for Canada would enable Staal to be the first Thunder Bayer to win the men’s top prize (excluding the gold Nicklin and Davy won with the Brits in ’36).
Few in the city of just over 109,000 seem as excited about the possibility of double gold as Larry Busniuk, the president of the Thunder Bay Minor Hockey Association, who saw first-hand what Olympic gold did for the community four years ago.
“We got to experience the feeling of one gold medal at the last Olympics, and now the opportunity to have multiple gold – it would be unbelievable,” Busniuk says. “Having these athletes represent Thunder Bay on such a big stage makes our city and the coaches who have helped in their development so proud and excited.”
While hockey has always been a major draw for young boys in Thunder Bay – thanks in large part recently to the success of the Staal family (Eric won a Stanley Cup in 2006 with Carolina, while brother Jordan added one of his own with Pittsburgh last spring) – women’s hockey profited greatly from Weatherston’s 2006 gold, and Busniuk is excited about a similar growth in 2010.
“I think Katie’s gold really brought women’s hockey to the forefront in our city,” he explains. “Starting with the 2006-07 season, the program has grown significantly, and it has had a tremendous impact on minor hockey in Thunder Bay. I can only imagine what will happen if we Haley and Eric can both bring gold back home.”
But the impact isn’t limited to the hockey arena. In 2006 alone Thunder Bay had Olympians in cross-country skiing, freestyle skiing and Nordic combined, in addition to hockey, and Nordic skier Jason Myslicki is back for another Olympic go-round in Vancouver.
Those athletes, according to Busniuk, give all young Thunder Bayers, and not just up-and-coming hockey players, role models they can look up to.
“Thunder Bay is very proud to have three Olympians, they’re athletes who will give back to our community with any hesitation,” he says. “Having these athletes on such a big stage, and having them succeed, give the kids in our city motivation and someone they can strive to be like, in whatever sport they choose.”