If you were to set out from Winnipeg searching for the heartbeats of Hutterite hockey, this is where to find one.
Turn south off the Trans-Canada Highway, about 24 kilometres west of Portage la Prairie. Keep straight until you meet a narrow gravel road. Follow it west, over the lip of the Manitoba Escarpment, past furrows and farms and hibernating fields of corn.
At the road’s end is a tidy cluster of buildings, bounded by spruce, and this is where Baker Colony grows.
About 110 people live here, most of them Maendels and Waldners, following the vision of a communal Christian life their ancestors set out nearly 500 years ago. Since 1973, that life has bloomed on these 4,500 acres of sandy soil.
The road makes a slow circle through Baker. It winds past the bustling Better Air manufacturing plant, where the colony makes barn ventilation fans and concrete accessories; past the two-family houses set in manicured rows.
Flashback to the first time a Free Press crew visited Baker. It was a cold night in December, in the darkening hours after the community’s supper. The sky over the nearby hills deepened to an inky blue, splashed with pink and purple.
Everything was quiet, except for the clatter of sticks and the scrape of skate blades on ice.
Tirzah sat on the edge of the rink, watched the men play, and waited. She turned her head, and flashed that sly grin.
“It’s Hockey Night in Baker,” she said.
Then she hopped off the boards and flew into the fray. She settled a pass on her stick, kicked up her skates and hustled the puck over the blue line. Feet pumping forward, driving towards the net, long blue skirt flowing behind.
Play good, skate fast, Karissa said.
Lives find a rhythm, and some things do change. But the game is simple, and always the same.
We live in a world saturated by sports. Through this wall-to-wall attention, simple games are transformed: becoming an entertainment behemoth that raises legends and arenas and, in the Olympics, the greatest spectacle on earth.
Underneath it all, a question we must sometimes pause to consider: what does sports really mean?
Until three months ago, I thought I had an inkling. Through a few dabbling years on the sports beat, and in the years since, I bore witness from the sidelines of glory. I covered Goldeyes playoffs and the last FIFA Women’s World Cup.
I was there in 2014, on the floor of the MTS Centre, when Jennifer Jones became an Olympian. And there a little more than a year later when she led her team to her fifth Canadian championship; and again last month, when she made it six.
And I have known high school and university players, as they strived for championships. Talked to David Onyemata, the first Manitoban drafted into the NFL, minutes after his first pre-season game as a New Orleans Saint.
I have spoken to Jets, in a dressing room thick with the tang of fresh sweat, and craned my neck to ask questions of NBA players. So I have seen how sports celebrates who we are, making myths of the best (and worst) of our nature.
But until this story, I don’t think I really saw the heart of what sports could be.
This is an intimate story, following a Hutterite women’s hockey team in the leadup to, and aftermath of, their annual charity game against the MacGregor Iron Maidens. It is about pioneers, and how sports finds its life in a culture.
And it is about the women I met, particularly the unflappable Tirzah Maendel, whose sheer passion for hockey animates the event. She is the lens through which a story is told; but it is bigger than her, and bigger than that.
This is also about how I rediscovered sports, in an outdoor rink on a Hutterite community near Portage la Prairie.
Over the last several months, and well over a dozen hours spent in vivacious conversation, I listened to Tirzah’s patient explanations about the roots of Hutterite women’s hockey, and how it carried them to this landmark game.
There are, properly speaking, no material stakes in this game. There are no scoresheets and no statistics; the players will earn no money and no fame. After the game, neither team could recall who’d scored each goal.
Yet so passionate was Tirzah about the sport that sometimes I had to step back and remind myself that we were discussing a rural exhibition game. She could just have easily been talking about a national championship run.
It was then I realized that when you strip it down, sports means nothing, if not people and community.
Over the years, I have met enough athletes for whom the world is not enough. And, like climbing the world’s highest mountains, there is something beautiful in striving to be the best in the world, simply because it’s there to be seized.
Yet the material glories of elite achievement also serve to unmoor sports from their anchors, lifting the most coveted rewards out of reach. Fame changes sports; so does money, and these can drive wedges between sports and love.
Because I have also known enough young athletes, burned out by the pressure pushed on them by coaches or parents. I have known disappointed minor-league pros, clinging to an identity that depended on their greatness.
Or, I remember the words of Olympic gymnastics star Aly Raisman, after the former USA Gymnastics team doctor was convicted of molesting young athletes in his care; she had sharp words for the organization that enabled him.
“Their biggest priority from the beginning, and still today, is their reputation, the medals they win and the money they make off of us,” she said, of USA Gymnastics. “I don’t think they really care.”
This is the level where sports, all too often, goes right off the rails.
But what I discovered, in the course of reporting this story, was an antidote to those pressures. It was a vision of what athletic achievement can mean when players alone create the context of their successes, rooted in their community.
It is not lost on me that this lesson is shaped by Hutterite values, and their connection to place.
Over the course of several daylong visits to the communities of Baker and nearby Fairholme, I was reminded of just how little most Manitobans know about Hutterite life. We know so little about their history, who they are, what they believe.
In some ways, that’s unavoidable. The majority of Winnipeggers — and that’s most Manitobans — have few opportunities for meaningful interactions with Hutterite people, and Hutterites aren’t looking to evangelize.
Yet we are connected, by geography and economy and shared shared points of culture. And through this game — which annually draws hundreds to the humble MacGregor rink and now raises thousands for charity — that glows.
What the Hutterite players created, in this event, calls us back to the true heart of sport. Love for a game, and for each other; a love where achievements are defined not as escape from, but as part of everyday community life.
After the Olympics, when a nation celebrated those who succeeded but also bemoaned those who fell short, perhaps it is even more timely to remember this kind of example.
The elite summits of sports are glittering, fantastical. They saturate our media with near-mythological stories of heroes and villains, triumphs and failures. It is not without reason; many of those stories are indeed beautiful.
Yet so is this: an outdoor rink in a quiet rural corner of Manitoba. A woman who cherished hockey so much that she helped build a new height for it in her part of the world; unfettered by outside pressures, existing only for love.