Growing up in the village of Englefeld, Sask., pop. 285, Cael Zimmerman dedicated his childhood to hockey, following his father and grandfather’s footsteps of their love for the sport.
“I started skating when I was two years old,” Zimmerman, 19, says. “My dad had built a backyard rink that after school, I remember going out there and skating when I was quite young.”
When he turned 12, he started travelling to Humboldt to play for a bigger team, instead of just practicing with his schoolmates.
“It’s only a 20-minute drive from Englefeld, but that’s the closest centre where they have AA hockey.”
Research is divided about whether growing up in a small town is more of an advantage in playing professional hockey, due to aspects such as being close with players and coaches, and more ice time, or a disadvantage, due to more travel time and costs.
Regardless, the towns that these players grow up in have an effect on their career, and the journey they have to take to achieve their goals.
Only four Calgary Hitmen players – Brayden Peters (Taber, Alta), Blake Allan (Davidson, Sask), Cael Zimmerman (Englefield, Sask) and Conrad Mitchell (Thorsby, Alta) – are from towns of fewer than 10,000 people. Devan Klassen of Crooked Creek, Alta., was with the Hitmen when the pandemic struck but has since signed with Swift Current.
Now, many are back in those small towns to train and wait out the pandemic. The upcoming season was planned to start on Jan, 8, 2021, but has once again been delayed.
They discuss how their love for hockey became a professional career from a family-based hobby.
Zimmerman recalls he was the only one playing hockey at a highly competitive level in his hometown, so there was no place for him to advance in Englefeld professionally.
“I played peewee and bantam in Humboldt. And then from there, I went to Prince Albert and played a year of AAA midgets there before going to Calgary in my 16-year-old season and making the team,” he says.
Moving away from his family home to play for the Prince Albert Mintos, at just 15, was a hard adjustment.
Zimmerman’s parents, Desi, owner of a roofing company, and Janna, owner of a hair salon, and older sister, Payton, drove him up to his billet’s house and helped him get settled.
“[There were] a few hugs and [then] they were gone. And I was there, by myself.”
Despite knowing his billet family from playing hockey with their son, it was still a hard adjustment so young.
“I remember crying that first night, you know, I’m a little sad, but my billets were great and they made me feel like I was part of the family and they made it feel like home.”
Now, having been playing for the WHL team, the Calgary Hitmen, for three years as a centre, he realizes how his hometown of 285 people affected his career in many ways.
“I can remember quite clearly, my grandpa and I, he would come over to my house after school, pick me up, and we would drive down to the rink or walk down to the rink every day after school. And he would work on little things with me, a couple of drills, skating, anything he could,” Zimmerman says. “I totally believe that was the reason and is the reason that I have made it as far as I have; because of the availability of the ice.”
When hailing from a small town, the path to success is not always an easy road.
In one 2011 study, Mark Bruner, a professor and Canada Research Chair in youth development through sport and physical activity in the school of physical and health education at Nipissing University, found that “in Canada, players from communities of 100,000 to <500,000 were 1.6-fold more likely to play for their country than players from the smallest (<10,000).”
He argued that the “birthplace is a reliable proxy for assessing a child’s place of development and socialisation into sport.”
Research theorizes that athlete development may be more costly for these athletes, due to the extra cost for traveling more frequently.
“There just may not be enough kids interested in playing and able to play to form teams,” says Nick Wattie, associate professor in faculty of health sciences, at Ontario Tech University. “And so, sometimes kids have got to travel quite far just to play on a team.”
Brayden Peters, a Hitmen goalie, accomplished this by travelling 40 minutes from Taber, Alta. (Pop. 8,428) to Lethbridge (Pop. 92,730) every day when he was 14 to practice or play games for the Val Matteotti Golden Hawks, Lethbridge’s bantam AAA team.
“Growing up in a small town, you’re never really a centre of attention, like I wasn’t really a big name, wasn’t well known,” Peters, 18, says. “It’s just been: make a name for myself and push myself to get on to these teams and get noticed by whoever may be scouting at a game.”
For two years, Peters did this commute until he was drafted by the Hitmen and moved at 16 to play for the team.
“We know that some youth, where they’re born doesn’t necessarily correlate to where their developmental experiences were,” Bruner says, considering the travel that these young athletes have to do for practices and games.
Trent Cassan, Calgary Hitmen assistant coach, believes growing up in his hometown, the Hamlet of Medora, Man. (pop. approx. 30 people), that these travel negatives impacted his parents more than him.
“We would practice Monday and Wednesday evenings in Souris [approximately a 45 minute drive] and then we’d play on the weekends or weekdays all throughout the province of Manitoba,” Cassan, 37, says. “So, it [was] a big commitment, for my parents, time wise and commitment wise.”
Despite the smaller selection of players from these towns, it does not mean to say small-town players are purely disadvantaged.
Bruner says that Queen’s University researchers Jennifer Turnnidge, Dave Hancock and Jean Cote, “put forward the idea of there’s certain setting features that maybe support greater enhanced connection with community, leading to greater development of the athletes.”
One of these aspects is the potential opportunities to play many sports as a child.
“I played every sport that our school offered,” Zimmerman says. “I mean, our school did not offer a basketball team or anything like that. We just didn’t have the amount of people to play it. But sports like volleyball, I played, badminton was a big one, track and field, cross-country running.”
Peters also focused on both hockey and baseball until he was 14, when he decided to dedicate himself professionally to just hockey.
“I just had more of a drive for hockey and felt I was better at it and could give myself a career out over it,” he says.
Studies found that families from small towns are often more likely to prioritize the sports their children play than families from larger cities, and the children are more likely to stay involved in this sport.
Peters says he felt having his father, Brian, as his coach for approximately five years, really helped him.
“[I] had a coach that I knew and worked with him and talked with him. And he just helped me get more comfortable at a young age and helped me progress.”
Playing with older teammates also helps small town kids with their progress.
“Smaller communities may not have the money or resources to form multiple tiers of teams. Athletes may have to play up or play down,” Wattie says.
Zimmerman found this to be the case in his hometown.
“I would also go out and practice with the age group above me,” he says. “When you are able to practice with players bigger, stronger, better than you, it makes you better. Practicing with the best will hopefully make you the best.”
Knowing who he was playing with and against, was a bonus for Peters, who also played against older kids to practice during spring hockey.
“The teams are just all my friends, like we went to school with the majority of the guys on my team,” he says. “We all grew close out of the rink, which made it a lot easier to play as a team on the ice also.”
Ontario Tech’s associate professor Nick Wattie found that being close to coaches and teammates can have a positive impact on these athletes.
“They all know the parents and they’re all kind of communicating and kind of aware that that creates a very positive, holistic environment for the development of the athlete,” he says.
With so much more ice time in a small town, it is easier to make these close-bonded environments for teammates.
“You would be at the rink, you know, in the wintertime in the community. It was probably one of the bigger gathering places for sure,” says Hitmen assistant coach Cassan.
Hitmen move home
Due to COVID-19, the 2019/20 season was cut short, postponing the Hitmen’s last four games. The 2020/21 season has since been postponed as well. However, being back in their hometown for the first-time during hockey season is giving some Hitmen players time to spend with their families again.
Peters is back in Taber living at his family’s home.
“It’s just been nice to sort of relax and not have the pressure of the hockey season and the pressure to perform all the time,” says Peters.
He has been travelling to Lethbridge a couple times per week to continue skating with United Hockey “for the last couple of months now and then working out just here in Taber.”
Zimmerman has also been away from home, living with his aunt in Saskatoon during the weekdays to work out and skate in the city, because “there is no ice around home to skate.”
All four Hitmen players from smaller towns have had to adjust their habits in order to continue training by themselves.
“You sort of sometimes lose some motivation, but you try to keep yourself in good spirits,” says Blake Allan, centre, who has been skating at the local rink by himself in his hometown of Davidson, Sask., population 1,025.
“I wouldn’t usually be home around this time of year, so I’m taking that as an advantage,” says Allan.
He stays in touch with teammates via teleconferencing.
“We have a Zoom call usually every week, every Monday (with the Hitmen),” says Allan, 19. “It’s good to see everyone’s faces on those and have some laughs.”
Conrad Mitchell, left wing, has been travelling one hour from Thorsby, population 985, to Edmonton to train, and says “you can rent the ice in Thorsby for only $20, so I’ve been doing that a couple of times and Thorsby is quite close to a lake, so there’s like rinks all over lake.”
Mitchell, 19, says the Zoom calls currently consist of “watching old hockey film, just to try refresh our minds.”
Currently back in Crooked Creek, population approximately 1,500, Devan Klassen, 19, is working on his family farm and has been informed by Swift Current to “be prepared to quarantine when we get there and they only allowed six to eight guys when we’re training and practicing.”
Finding the positives in this unique hockey season, the Hitmen players from these small towns are appreciating the time they are able to spend with family and the chance to relax in their down time.
With the change in his winter activities, Cael Zimmerman is preparing to go ice fishing and snowmobiling this winter instead of playing hockey.
“I am definitely wishing we could be playing games,” says Zimmerman. “But I’m making the most of the time I’m able to spend with the family right now.”