Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A legacy worth remembering

I can’t tell you the last time I ran into Lionel Repka. But I’d bet the second mortgage he was smiling.

The man was always smiling, save for one notable occasion. He was damn good at it, after all; from across the room he’d spot you standing there, and the show would be on.
He’d stick out his hand. His eyes would scrunch down to happy slits. And then the San Andreas Fault of grins would split his square-jawed Alberta Clipper mug, and there you would be, totally disarmed, unable to form any possible judgment but one: Geez, what a nice guy.

He was more than that, of course.
You’ll get the particulars elsewhere today, on the occasion of his passing from cancer at the age of 80. The 666 games he played in 11 seasons as a Komet. The Governor’s Trophy he won in 1965 as the International Hockey League’s top defenseman. The 98 goals he scored here, including eight in the playoffs. The No. 6 he wore, and which now hangs in the Memorial Coliseum rafters, never to be worn again by any Komets defenseman.

They called him Choo-Choo for the way he churned tirelessly up the ice, and if that and the No. 6 swaying up there in the air currents confer a certain permanence on the man, it goes beyond just a number and a nickname. Minor league franchises are the most ephemeral of things, but in this city the Komets long ago transcended that notion. They’ve become so much a part of our identity that we can no more imagine the town without them than we can imagine it without Little Turtle or Anthony Wayne.

And we have Lionel Repka to thank for that.

He and Lenny Thornson and Reggie Primeau and a whole pile of others not only played hockey here, they lived here, forming a template that Komets players follow to this day. If Repka and Thornson and Primeau stayed – and Colin Lister and Ken Ullyot and George Drysdale, too – so  did Colin Chaulk and Nick Boucher and P.C. Drouin. So did Grant Richison and Steve Fletcher and Guy Dupuis, and many, many more.

None had any connection to the city, understand, or even to the country. They were a bunch of kids from Canada – Repka hailed from Edmonton – who came here to play their national game. And yet they saw something here of value, something that went beyond the dimensions of a hockey rink. And so they stayed.

In the process, they stitched the Komets indelibly into the fabric of the community. And into their own, of course.

That became clear some years ago, when a handful of those who first came and stayed was hit hard by misfortune. Ullyot was fighting a grim battle with fibromyalgia. Primeau had just lost part of his leg to complications stemming from diabetes. And Lionel Repka’s son Ron, 40, had been struck and killed while riding his bike on a county road.

It was a gray autumn afternoon when I drove out to Lionel’s home in Fox Chase to talk about all that. We sat at a table in his living room, looking out at woods bright with October fire. Lionel greeted me with his trademark grin, but then we started talking about the day of Ron’s funeral, and the grin vanished and his voice grew soft.

There on a hilltop overlooking the gravesite that day, Repka remembered, sat a small rumpled figure in a wheelchair. It was Reg Primeau. He was still in the hospital, but when he heard what had happened he climbed out of his bed and came out to the cemetery to be at his teammate’s side.

“That just …” Repka began.

And then he stopped. His hand covered his mouth. His eyes began to glisten.

And now?

Well. All these years later, a whole city knows the feeling.

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