From Dominion City, Strathclair, Clavet or Ardrossan, every small town has a road that leads to Team Canada
“We’ve got a golf course and a pool. We have a rink, but it’s only open in
the winter. We’ve got stop signs and paved roads, but not even close to
anything like a traffic light or anything like that.”
The fact Denton Mateychuk feels the need to point out that his hometown
actually has paved roads tells you all you need to know about the size of
Dominion City, Man.
According to the 2016 Census of Canada, the town – located 90 kilometres
south of Winnipeg, just 15 minutes from the Manitoba-Minnesota border – has
only 353 residents, the smallest of any of the 113 players who are online
this week for Canada’s national under-17 development camp.
Another Manitoban, though, is quick to contest those numbers.
“[It’s a] credit union, grocery store and a gas station. That’s really all
it is,” Conor Geekie says of Strathclair, an hour northwest of Brandon,
which registered a population of 709 in 2016. “[There’s only] 120, 140
The numbers aren’t important. Who can lay claim to the smallest hometown
isn’t important. What is important is the passion for hockey and the
journey it can take players, fans, parents and volunteers on.
The Manitoba duo – along with Kalem Parker (Clavet, Sask. – pop. 410),
Jordan Gustafson (Ardrossan, Alta. – pop. 412) and Donovan Arsenault
(Richmond, P.E.I. – pop. 755), among others that are part of U17 camp – are
proof that small-town products have a path to the Program of Excellence.
Both players came up through their local hockey associations – Mateychuk
with the Southern Steelers Minor Hockey Association and Geekie with the
Strathclair MHA – both made their way through the Hockey Manitoba
high-performance program, both were top picks in the 2019 WHL Bantam Draft
– Geekie went second overall to the Winnipeg Ice, nine picks before
Mateychuk was selected by the Moose Jaw Warriors – and both earned places
on the Canadian roster for the 2020 Winter Youth Olympic Games, although
Geekie contracted mononucleosis a few weeks prior to the tournament and
So as for the notion that big-city players get all the attention? They’re
not buying that.
“If you’re out there, they’ll find you,” Mateychuk says. “
Just play and have fun and let [hockey] take you where it takes you
Fun has never been a problem when it comes to playing the game, and a lot
of that is a product of growing up in a small town. Mateychuk was a
goaltender in his younger days – “I think you’re a bit better playing out
than you are in goal, so let’s try it out for a bit,” his father told him
after more than a few lopsided losses – and Geekie had one season where his
team consisted of 10 players – seven girls and three guys.
But that’s what the journey is all about, and Mateychuk and Geekie are
quick to give thanks – to their towns for shaping them as young men, and to
their local hockey associations for shaping their games.
“I could walk to the rink from my house and skate whenever I want,” Geekie
says. “Growing up [in a small LHA], you had kids that maybe it was their
first year playing hockey. You still had to get them to touch the puck. You
still had to get them a goal. It was a game within a game for me.”
As Geekie mentions, one of the benefits of living in a small town is easy
access to the ice. He has a key to the Strathclair Arena, while Mateychuk’s
dad, Jason, works at the Dominion City Arena, and was quick to unlock the
doors whenever one – or all – of his four boys wanted to skate.
Of course, there are a few nuances on the Prairies that big-city players
don’t typically have to work around.
“We have cows in [the arena] in the summer probably until about September,”
Geekie says with a smile. “And then you put the ice in over the dirt.”
Mateychuk and Geekie know their journeys can resonate with players in small
towns from British Columbia to Newfoundland & Labrador. So presented
with an opportunity to provide a few words of wisdom, it’s not surprising
there’s no mention of wrist shots or shift lengths.
Instead, they’re right in line with the small-towns values they were raised
“Just keep working,” Geekie says. “There’s no end to work. Success will
come whenever it comes, and if it’s meant to be, it’ll be. Just play your
game. There’s no reason to change. And always be a good person. I’ve always
grown up being taught that. You can be really bad at hockey, but if you’re
a bad person I don’t think you’re going anywhere.”