Following years of staging Hockey Canada Skills Academy (HCSA) lessons for Grade 9-12 students in an indoor rink, the adaptability of Blair McCulloch, the program lead for Gillam School, has been put to the test the past several winters.
When the Gillam Recreation Centre closed its doors for renovation in spring 2017, there was excitement in the northern Manitoba town of 1,200 over the expected unveiling of the redeveloped building in 2018.
Dec. 6, 2017 changed everything – a massive fire devastated the building. The re-introduction of the academy, or any minor hockey programming, into the arena would be significantly delayed.
Closing down the HCSA in the face of substantial adversity was not an option McCulloch entertained, says Brian McMillan, the physical education coordinator for the Frontier School Division.
“Blair’s a leader by example. He did not want those kids not to have that course. One day he phoned me and told me, ‘I’m putting ice down.’ I asked him where because the arena’s closed, and then he goes, ‘I’m building a rink,’ and I said, ‘Okay, awesome.’”
McCulloch has spearheaded the manufacturing of an outdoor rink on the school’s blacktop for each of the past three Januarys, which is the one month of the school year the HCSA runs.
“My class and I built up snowbanks, and then we used tarps to hold down the bottom layer of water and then let it freeze overnight. We use hoses from the school,” explains McCulloch, who also teaches math and P.E. in Gillam.
An initial freeze is usually done by McCulloch in mid-December to lay the groundwork so that the surface is ready for intensive on-ice sessions to be conducted starting in the second school week of January.
The community centre has opened its doors again to host activities such as fitness challenges, after-school sports and movie nights, but the arena is still unusable.
“The damage from the smoke on the ice surface makes the water not freeze somehow, so there have been all sorts of issues,” says McCulloch.
According to an update posted on the Town of Gillam website on Nov. 8, 2019, it is the petroleum within the soot that is preventing the ice from bonding, which makes skating dangerous “due to a high possibility of a crack forming or a chunk of the surface breaking out.”
McCulloch hopes the ongoing problem will end before January 2021 rolls around so that the program can return indoors. But he appreciates how his family (his two-year-old son Rory has done some ice flooding), students and members of the community have banded together to provide ice for the HCSA and for other Gillamites to enjoy.
“It is good for our community to have a decent sheet of ice so that kids who have an interest in hockey can actually play the game.”
While the landscape of the course has changed, the program’s strong skill-development track record remains undiminished. McMillan considers McCulloch’s ability to provide well-structured training as a chief reason why the academy has flourished under his leadership during the past seven years.
Grade 9 student Dyson Hyshka agrees with McMillan that McCulloch excels at providing a fun and practical course; his first year of HCSA instruction was a terrific experience.
“It was great getting out on the ice to play the game and interacting with people. I became a much better skater and passer because of the hockey course.”
McCulloch eagerly awaits what has been an arduous rink restoration process to reach its conclusion soon. But if the obstacles persist, his desire to keep this HCSA in operation will likely compel him to build another outdoor rink next December.