POPLAR POINT -- Bill Leslie was a boy among men when he made his mark in the town's hockey history.
The Poplar Point Memorials, including 16-year-old Leslie, won both the Manitoba men's intermediate B and the provincial intermediate A hockey championship following the 1956-57 season.
Preceding the Memorials were the Poplar Point Pilgrims who won the 1920-21 provincial intermediate title and were so loved that a local resident wrote a song about it.
The town's arena is named for J.P. Bend, who managed both the Pilgrims and the Memorials.
It's that arena and the Pilgrims and the Memorials that have inspired a 100 Years of Hockey celebration next weekend in Poplar Point.
"I have a key to the rink, and let me tell you, that's like having a key to the city," said Leslie, 75, who lives 15 minutes away in Portage la Prairie.
Hockey has been a life sport for Leslie, who is still on the ice a couple of times a week as a coach with his grandson Dalton Campbell's Portage Terriers peewee A2 hockey team. He'll be wearing some of his 1950s equipment on Friday when he plays in a game against the Detroit Red Wings/Winnipeg Jets alumni.
"It's going to mean a lot to be out there on the ice, playing in that rink again. It's hard to put into words but hockey was everything to us and this town when we were growing up. Hockey was everything to this community," said Leslie, whose wife of 45 years, Lynn, can remember selling boiled hotdogs right out of a steel pot from the rink's concession back when Bill played. "We lived on the farm. We came in to skate. The women worked in the canteen. When there was a game in town, people would come in here and take their spot and not move for hours. You wouldn't get it back if you did."
On Friday, there will be banners unveiled, stories told, backs clapped, glasses raised, pucks shot and new memories made at the old barn. With room for just 240 people (due to Manitoba liquor laws), the place is sold out, just like the old days. Not a ticket to be had.
The Red Wings/Jets will be led by Poplar Point native and former Red Wings star Dennis Hextall against a collection of Poplar Point alumni. There are 10 new banners, donated by the Manitoba Hockey Hall of Fame and hanging from the rink's rafters, that will be officially unveiled. They will honour a bunch of Bends, including J.P., Lin and Tom, and a horde of Hextalls, including Bryan Sr., Bryan Jr., Dennis, Rick and Randy, the Poplar Point Memorials and the Poplar Point Pilgrims.
"Thank God for hockey and the arena when we were kids. It was all we did and it was the focal point for the community," Dennis Hextall, 69, said in a telephone interview. After growing up in Poplar Point and moving away in 1963 to go to the University of North Dakota, he played 13 NHL seasons. He still referees senior men's hockey in the Detroit area and will strap on the blades again with the alumni. "If not for hockey, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have gone to university."
Dennis said he spent a couple of winters in New York when he was very young and was about five years old when his dad, Bryan Sr., retired from the NHL. The family returned to Poplar Point where Bryan Sr. ran a lumber yard. Former NHL goalie Ron Hextall, grandson of Bryan Sr., son of Bryan Jr. and nephew to Dennis, skated at the rink as a youngster when he'd visit his grandparents.
"The last time I played in a game on that ice, I guess I was playing midget hockey in Poplar Point," Dennis said. "What I would like to see come out of this is that they can keep the rink going for years to come. It's good for the community and there's lots of memories in that place."
Leslie, who later served as Western Hockey League scout for Lethbridge and Spokane, said he remembers the J.P. Bend rink was so packed for the Memorials' home game in the 1957 best-of-three provincial B championship series against the Pierson Bruins, some players' families couldn't get in.
"I remember there was knothole in the wall at the back of the rink -- it's still there -- and one of the (players') fathers watched the game from outside through the knothole. He couldn't get in," Leslie said, referring to father of his Memorials teammate Bob Miller. "That's how exciting it was. I was the youngest player on that team, so you don't think of it at the time, but it sure was special in this town."
Perry Dickenson, 52, lived hockey growing up in Poplar Point. His maternal grandfather, Fred Webster, played on the 1920-21 Pilgrims. His father, Grant Dickenson, played on the Memorials team.
He and Warren Bend have spearheaded the 100 Years of Hockey celebration, doing everything from collecting memorabilia to designing the program to applying for grants for the more than $80,000 in refurbishments to the rink.
He said the celebration idea started in 2002 when he and some other volunteers from town started renovating the rink and dug up an old photo of the 1913-14 Pilgrims.
"We decided to do it because of what hockey has meant to all of us here. All my friends are through hockey. A lot of my best friends I met right here at the Poplar Point rink, and that's the story for pretty much everyone around here," said Dickenson, who moved away for some years but moved back to Poplar Point in 1997. "It's just going to be a chance to enjoy the friendships. Because you make lifelong friends in a place like this."
Members of the Detroit Red Wings/Winnipeg Jets alumni team that will play a trio of games next weekend:
Schedule of games
Feb. 8: Red Wings/Jets alumni vs. Poplar Point alumni, J.P. Bend Memorial Arena, Poplar Point, 7 p.m. Meet-and-greet reception to follow.
Feb. 9: Red Wings/Jets alumni vs. Portage Terriers alumni, Portage Credit Union Centre, 7 p.m.
Feb. 10: Red Wings/Jets alumni vs. Winkler Flyers alumni, Winkler Arena, 3 p.m.
Feb. 8-9: Three-on-three tournament, eight local teams, J.P. Bend Memorial Arena.