A former foe tells the story of Yellowknife’s winningest hockey team, the Weaver & Devore Marauders
by Loren McGinnis
photos courtesy Johnnie Bowden
There are few things as superficial or annoying as sports cliches. We listen to athletes in the hopes that something is said that comes from the heart. Something authentic. So it is with the Weaver & Devore Marauders. Some of the testimony from team members sounds like a cliche, but it isn’t. On the contrary, the way the team describes itself – as a family, as a team that finds a way to win, as a group that leaves it all out there – is all authentic.
I spent three seasons playing against Weaver. I played for their rivals, Ace. In fact, I’m nervous about the reaction this article will get from my teammates. Either way, you can count me among those who always found Weaver aggravating. They are aggravating when they score and when they stop a goal. They are aggravating when they skate through a check and when they dive to draw a penalty. They are aggravating when they win, and when they … no, that’s where that ends.
As this story goes to print, Weaver leads four other teams in the A Division of the Yellowknife Rec Hockey League. This view from the top is the same one they have every year. Since the team was formed and started playing its games at the Gerry Murphy Arena, Weaver has dominated. They may be the most successful hockey team in Canada during their five decades on the ice. They’ve won dozens of league championships, dozens of playoff championships and dozens of tournament championships. They’ve left only crumbs for other teams to fight over.
Goalie Johnnie Bowden figures he’s played 800 games for Weaver since joining the team a quarter century ago. Nearing 55 he has become the team elder and curator of its history. After all, Weaver is not just a hockey team, it’s an institution. Bowden quickly points all the way back to the team’s founding father, Buddy Weaver.
Back then they played in “the Commercial League against the mine teams and the Chiefs, there was hitting and fighting,” says Bowden, “it was almost like semi-pro hockey.” During the days of the Commercial League, when a player came just short of making the NHL, they’d entertain offers from mills, and mines and companies. In exchange for a well-paying job, and maybe somewhere to live, a guy would roll into town with his hockey gear in tow. Such were the early days of Yellowknife, the gold mines, and the Commercial League.
More for organization than calibre, Weaver is still run something like a semi-pro hockey club. Unofficially, they have a farm system: players often skate their way onto to the team by first playing in the B Division for Talbot’s Leafs. And on the back end, when a player can no longer contribute in the A Division, Weaver has an old timer’s team where old stars go out to pasture.
Bowden has seen how hard it is to step away from the team. As part of my Weaver history lesson, he talks me through the team’s generations of greats. In the early days there was Bobby and Kenny Weaver. Now there’s Scotty Daniels, Trent Hamm and Bowden. But in the middle, and arguably at the team’s peak, there was Bill Burlington. A force, Burly’d been an all-American at Boston College and then moved North. “Burly was our connection to professional hockey,” says Bowden, “he’d go down every summer and skate with pros that he’d played with and then come back and tell us all about it.”
For years Burly also played with some of the North’s best hockey players: Quinn Groenhyde and Bobby Knight. Knight’s speed and Groenhyde’s athleticism and intimidating competitive nature made them Weaver greats. Bowden remembers a time after a loss when on the way into the dressing room one of the Weaver players said, “nice try, guys.” Groenhyde wouldn’t have it. “For five minutes he shouted a speech about a ‘nice try’ not being enough for us,” says Bowden, adding this was around the year Weaver played a 35-game season with one loss.
But it was Burly’s combination of skill, strength and work ethic that embodied the “values” that define Weaver, says Bowden, still impressed years later. “He was a man of true humility. He believed in putting your head down and getting the job done,” he says. “And he inspired confidence in the rest of us.” Burly was dominant until his body had had enough from years of tough play. Bowden says when Burly had to quit, he didn’t come around the rink much, and he declined to be interviewed for this article. When I ask Bowden when it might be over for him, he chokes up just thinking about it. “I think I’m just beginning to understand what Burly went through,” says Bowden, before trailing off to gather himself.
Bowden’s sentimentality is sincere, and Weaver’s younger new players buy into it. Mark Killbride played his way up from the farm, Talbot’s Leafs, and onto the big team a few years ago. When Bowden called him to be on the team, “it meant the world to me. It’s our little NHL,” he says. Killer, as he’s called at the rink, embodies another Weaver characteristic: knowing his role. The idea of finesse players, checkers and steady defensemen tends to break down in recreational hockey. But for Weaver, it isn’t recreational, and the roles don’t break down. “I’m a third-liner,” says Killbride, who’s gangly but fast. “I’m a grinder.”
Killbride says he was “honoured” when he made the team, to become part of “something special, with history.” Being on the team does mean you’re part of something, and not just at the rink. Every summer the team spends a week out fishing together. Last year they went to Vegas. Call them diversions or call them team building, the outcome is a group that’s more than just a bunch of guys who see each other at the rink once a week. Being a long way from his home of Prince Edward Island, Killbride says “these guys became my family up here.” He also cautiously shared that during his toughest time in the North, when his father died back home, it was the team, especially guys like Bowden, that got him through it.
Ryan Strain has a unique perspective on Weaver. He played for the team for a year before breaking off to captain Ace and help drive the rivalry between the teams. He paints a similar picture of Weaver to those painted by Bowden and Killbride. But in Strain’s case, he explains the Weaver model doesn’t work for everyone. “When Johnnie Bowden talks, everybody gathers around and listens. It’s a bit intense for some guys,” he says.
Strain has several theories on why no one likes Weaver. Part of it, he says, boils down to the fact that many of them are teachers. “They spend the bulk of their lives talking to kids – they’re the authority – and then they come to the rink and talk to refs and other players like that.” But ultimately Strain is among those who respect Weaver, if only because they’ve had so many battles. “The other frustrating thing with Weaver is they play as a team, they back check, they chip the puck out, and they’re good,” he says.
Bowden is pretty sure this won’t be his last season, but he knows he doesn’t have many left. Naturally, he wants to win the big one again – the Easter Tournament. Killbride wants to win for Bowden, too.
As always, Weaver will have to get past Ace to win anything. And though I’m done playing for Ace, they’re still my team. So I worked on this Weaver article secretly. Unfortunately, the idea was leaked to an unnamed Ace teammate. Right away he texted: “What’s this I hear?!? A story about weaver team.
Boys ain’t gonna be happy tonight!!”
I begged him not to tell the rest of the team. After a protracted negotiation, he agreed not to spread the word, and texted me his blessing and a reminder: “Cool. Will look forward to it. F#@$ I hate weaver.”