By Brendon Crossman
Photos courtesy the Crawford and Wilson families
With North Toronto Hockey Association celebrating its 50th anniversary, Breakout discovered what truly defines the organization.
It’s about more than just hockey. It’s the chill of the winter wind before an early morning game. It’s the smells from your childhood stopping you in your tracks. It’s the lifelong ties with teammates. It’s the security felt only within the walls of your community rink.
Nestled at the end of Orchard View Boulevard – a cozy street in Eglinton Park, just west of Yonge Street – is North Toronto Memorial Arena. For 50 years, youth hockey players have flocked to the storied rink, proudly sporting the distinct red, green and white of “NT.”
It is estimated that more than 30,000 kids have donned the eye-catching jersey in the half-century of the North Toronto Hockey Association. But like many hockey stories, the legacy of the NTHA depends on more than a famous jersey or meticulously kept ice or countless championship banners.
It depends on the people.
The Wilsons and Crawfords both raised their three sons mere steps from the front doors of North Toronto Memorial Arena, and it was there that their families first crossed paths.
Or was it the lacrosse field?
It’s hard to be certain, really, given the hectic schedules Keven and Neville Wilson and Al and Jen Crawford balanced raising three active boys.
“It became hockey, baseball, soccer, lacrosse, three-on-three [summer hockey],” reflected Mr. Wilson. “The first hockey connection would have been Keenan and Tom in 2001.”
Keenan Crawford, a 1993, and Tom Wilson, a 1994 playing a year up, were teammates for the first time in their minor novice season with NT, with both their fathers behind the bench.
A decade and a half later, Tom is playing with the NHL’s Washington Capitals and Keenan is following in his father’s footsteps, coaching the next generation of young stars in North Toronto. Though their paths may seem divergent, they are profoundly connected and still deeply rooted in the hockey community that raised them.
Jon Crawford and Pete Wilson – the oldest in each clan – were born in 1989, followed by Cole Crawford in 1991, then Keenan and Tom and finally Jamie Wilson in 1996. Like many NT families, the bond between the Wilsons and Crawfords developed where their boys did – at the rink.
“One of the early recollections I have is from when Al coached Tom,” said Mr. Wilson as he took a figurative stroll down memory lane. “You’d go into the room before the game and all of Al’s kids would be tying up their own skates.”
“Al quietly introduced the concept that the top two eyelets were ‘shooting laces,’” he continued. “So the players had to get them just right because if they did, they would for sure score a goal.”
The plan is a work of genius, but did it work?
“The kids bought that hook, line and sinker.”
Mr. Crawford, who started in the NTHA in 1969, knows all the tricks but is quick to recall the people – like arena manager Eric Anweiler, and long-time coaches Dick Chamandy and Tom Storie – that have helped make NT an integral part of the community.
“Where can you drop off a seven-year-old, watch them run from your car to this big building and feel like it’s absolutely the safest place in the world to be?”
“With people like Eric and his wonderful staff, you just knew they were in great hands and everything was safe,” added Mr. Crawford.
His wife, Jen, shares that sentiment.
“You can’t talk about North Toronto without talking about the arena. And Eric is the constant.”
While the boys played rep hockey – with North Toronto and in spurts with other clubs – during their childhood, both the Wilsons and Crawfords agree that the recreational league carries and defines the NTHA.
“The house leagues end up being the feeder system for GTHL rep hockey,” said Mr. Wilson. “The North York Knights and Leaside Flames organizations are the same way. Without these house league organizations, I don’t know if the GTHL would be what it is.”
“It’s the house league program that is the heart of North Toronto hockey,” added Mr. Crawford. “It’s perfect.”
As it turns out, a first-class hockey program isn’t the only thing on the menu at NT. The hot dogs are world famous, at least according to the organization’s website.
Mr. Crawford – and by all accounts, anyone who has entered the building – supports that claim to fame.
“On championship day at NT arena, they were free. That’s why you wanted to make the championship game!”
Last summer, Tom hosted a shinny session at NT as part of a fundraiser for a local school. As his dad recalls, Tom stopped in his tracks as he stepped into his adopted childhood home and announced, “I love the smell of this arena.”
Whether in reference to the smell of hot dogs or to the hockey gear aroma wafting through, it’s clear NT left an impact on Tom and the rest of the Wilson and Crawford families.
Any Canadian who grew up with the game has a rink they remember from their childhood – where they wrote their hockey stories and dreamed of bigger ones.
For the Wilsons and Crawfords – and countless other NT families – that storied sheet of ice, the one that holds a lifetime of memories, is found at North Toronto Memorial Arena.
“Eric and the rink staff made sure we had perfect ice and the best hot dogs in the city,” Tom recalled as part of the association’s 50th anniversary celebration. “NT is where I fell in love with the game and without such a great hockey community I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
The Crawford brothers are all serving behind a North Toronto bench this season alongside other NT alumni.
Jamie, the youngest of the Wilson/Crawford boys, is attending Queen’s University in Kingston and suits up each week on an intramural team featuring – you guessed it – more North Toronto graduates.
Pete, the eldest of the six, wrote a book called They Play Hockey in Heaven which tells the story of the eldest brother trying to save his local arena, with Eric starring as the Zamboni driver.
“North Toronto is the first place my kids ran free,” said Mrs. Crawford. “There’s just something about that organization and that arena. We’re so lucky.”