The way Roger sees it, an ice rink is pure luxury. Old Man Winter should reign. The ‘Gospel according to Provencher’ has four pillars: discipline, sobriety, hard work, and pleasure. “Until the age of sixteen I always played ice hockey outdoors. We played sport at minus thirty degrees Celsius. No problem. No ice rink, just frozen ponds. My mother said to me recently, 'What a shame you boys didn't have an ice rink when you were children.’ To which I replied, ‘Mom, those times outdoors were the best days of my life.’ A training session would start with fifteen to twenty boys shoveling a meter of snow onto the boarding and then we just enjoyed ourselves. You didn't need to organize anything. Everyone showed up every day. Our town breathed ice hockey.”
Roger Provencher | Trainer/coach Eindhoven student ice hockey association Icehawks and the Eindhoven Kemphanen | aged 59 | Eindhoven | Princeville, Canada | mailman | father of two daughters
That town is Princeville in Quebec. While the name sounds royal, it is un village des col blues. A typical working class town that looks straight out of a Bruce Springsteen blue-collar classic. Just read aloud the lyrics of ‘This Hard Land’ and ‘Lucky Town’ and that's the picture; no drawings necessary. “My dad was a lumberjack and my mother worked from home as a seamstress so that I and my two brothers could play ice hockey. When my dad died when I was eighteen, we all had to do our bit to help. My twelve-year-old brother started working at a gas station three times a week. My jobs included logging and catching chickens. But we were never short of anything.”
Not short of anything. That is Provenchers for ‘anyone who gets to play ice hockey every day doesn't have a care in the world’. Being your hero Bobby Orr every day. Ice hockey was Princeville’s elixir of life. The town is a Canadian version of ‘Asterix and the Gauls’: both small and brave. “With only five thousand inhabitants, we regularly beat cities with thirty to fifty thousand residents. With our peewees (kids aged 11 and 12) we still hold a winning record. We won everything going. Our C team beat an AA team. It was great. Look, I've got goose bumps just talking about it. Everyone was afraid of Princeville.”
As well as bravura, Roger shared another two qualities with Asterix; a well-shaped, full moustache and malheuresement a short stature. “Every Canadian dreams of a professional career. I could have joined the second team of the Chicago Blackhawks, but I knew that with my height of one meter seventy I would likely never make the NHL, the North American professional league.” Fortunately Roger had a Dream B: Europe. Via the brother of the then coach, a guy from neighboring Plessisville, Roger ended up joining the Eindhoven Kemphanen at the age of twenty-one. He was so taken with the club's ambitions that he decided to stay on longer than a single season.
While pursuing his Dream B Roger remained committed to his gospel. No wild parties with unlimited Budweiser and French fries à la Poutine Québécoise, but ludus et labora. “I enjoyed the first year; making super trips across the Netherlands. But during the second year boredom set in. I wanted to lead a normal life. A board member of the Kemphanen got me a job with the painting company Caspar de Haan. It wasn't even to boost my income; I just wanted to get out of bed at a reasonable hour and be outside. After that I had other jobs, and now for the past twenty year I've been a mailman and employed at the Student Sports Centre.”
“What do you like about delivering the mail?” Roger straightens up his Icehawks cap and leans towards me in amazement. That I even need to ask. “It is great. Being a mailman is this: cycling, walking and being outside. What more do you want?” The job has not brought him the fame of an NHL player, but in the area around Floralaan-Oost and Leenderweg only Elvis is more famous. “Everyone in the neighborhood likes to see me coming by. The coffee is always ready. I was lately able to fix a broken door for a woman on my route, there on the spot.”
Still Post NL is no match for ice hockey. “If I had to choose between the Icehawks and the mail? I'd stop being a mailman right away,” he says laughing aloud. “My wife or ice hockey? That's a choice I need never make. Thank heavens. I got to know my wife on the ice rink, she knows it's my sanctum.” In 2011 the Ice Sports Centre became a sacred place the coach needed more than ever. “I had mouth cancer. Luckily my doctor understood that there was only one place I could rehabilitate: the ice rink. I am never sick, weak or nauseous there. When I pull on my skates, place both feet on the ice, I'm where I need to be.”
Unbeknownst to them, ‘his’ Icehawks worked as healers throughout his rehabilitation process. “I found it pretty difficult to accept that I was ill; I don't smoke, I don't drink and I play sport every day. My recovery was tough both physically and mentally. Eating was and still is difficult, because my mouth doesn't open very wide anymore. The guys provided a welcome distraction. Take the dressing room chitchat before a match, for example. It's about everything: ice hockey, computers, cars, women, smelly unwashed team shirts … Fabulous!”
When the conversation turns to the Icehawks, his eyes beam and his smile is at maximum. Roger leans back, settling into storytelling mode. He has the same gift of storytelling as Springsteen; two sentences and you're in his world. Endearing anecdotes about camaraderie told in plain everyday speech. “I was nearing the end of my radiation treatment and I fancied a game of squash. I hadn't played in a while and didn't know how long I'd hold up so I asked two Icehawks players. Then if I was knackered after ten minutes, they could carry on without me. Eventually I ran them both ragged. Afterwards they told my wife, ‘Your husband is nuts'.”
“My players don't understand how I manage to come home from a training session at midnight and get up cheerfully at five a.m. to do my mail round. That's just how I am; always giving 100 percent. So naturally when I'm holding a training session or we have a match, I don't give anyone the chance to ‘doze’. Ice hockey is fast, but it's also hard work and, first and foremost, teamwork. I always compare it with the hunting strategies of a wolf pack: my team has to work as a family and I'm the father,” he says laughing.
He looks after his players in the same way as he took care of his family in his youth. “A TU/e student from Thailand started playing ice hockey with the Icehawks. She lived kitty-corner across from me and always cycled to the ice rink in the dark. When I heard that, I said, ‘That is the last time you cycle alone to the ice rink. From now on you come and join us for dinner at our house and I'll drive you there’. And what do you think happened? She now plays for the Thai national team.”
Roger leaves through his ice hockey memory again. “Ice hockey has given me so much. Thanks to ice hockey I met my wife; I found a home. And with the Icehawks I've even got a second home. I have met people of so many nationalities: Norwegians, Italians, Finns, French … the list goes on. I keep in touch with many players, even those from fifteen years ago. They arrive as boys and suddenly I get a message that they have become a father. Wonderful!”
Stopping is still far from the coach's mind. “The guys at TU/e are keeping me young. I want to be able to keep up with them on the ice, so I keep myself fit. I've got many more years in me. But if I have to say farewell, I hope the guys will organize a tournament with all the former Icehawk players. Just to have one last chance to see all that fantastic play that at present I still get to see every week. Because ice hockey is better than even...you know what…,” he roars with laughter.
Roger Provencher. Didn't I say that you would end up smiling.
Raymond Starke works at the TU/e Student Sports Centre, in the midst of more than 13 thousand sport card holders who frequently (or less frequently) do sports to their heart's content. Once every four weeks, he interviews a student or employee for Cursor on the topic of ‘the beauty and consolation of sports’.
Top photo: Bart van Overbeeke