A small village with big heart

Amber McCormack hasn’t missed many of daughter Kathy’s hockey games over the past 20 years or so.

And she didn’t like the idea of not being there next month when her eldest child took to the ice in Nagano, Japan as a member of the Canadian women’s Olympic hockey team.

Now, Mrs. McCormack isn’t one to be easily discouraged, but faced with the expected $10,000 per person expense of getting to and staying in an Olympic city halfway around the world, even she admitted the task seemed daunting.

“That’s just a little out of our league, but I’d love to be there. I hope I win a lottery,” she said in an interview just before Christmas. “I told everybody they had to buy me a lottery ticket for Christmas. I’ll tell you one thing, if I win money, I’m gone. You won’t see my dust.

Well, get out the dustbuster. The people of Blackville – population 968 according to the last census – are determined to ensure Amber and husband Jackie will see their daughter lace up the skates and go for gold in just a few weeks.

A group called Proud Parents Committee has been formed with the goal of raising the money needed to fly the couple to the Olympics. Billy Walls is a member of the group, which is organizing a series of benefits fund raisers. The response has been overwhelming, he said. “I went to get my oil changed today and the guy gave me $100.

Kathy McCormack has already done so much for her community that it’s only right the village do something in return, Mr. Walls said. One result of having an Olympic hockey player from the community is already evident. Young girls are starting to join the local hockey teams.

A flag campaign designed to raise money resulted in paper flags – with a red maple leaf and Ms. McCormack’s name in the middle – being pasted in a window of practically every home in the village.

The fund-raising has included a Wade Hallihan benefit concert at the Kick Start Lounge, and a bottle drive. As well, tickets will be sold at the Tim Horton Leafs hockey game set for the Miramichi Civic Centre. The prize is a hockey jersey autographed by all the members of the women’s team. Tickets will also be sold at local businesses for $2 or three for $5 with the draw set for Feb. 23.

Yesterday., a Kathy McCormack Appreciation Day was held at a in neighbouring Renous, where the 23-year-old Olympian played minor hockey. Her parents dropped the puck at the game between Miramichi and Renous.

A street-side sign in the village features a countdown to the start of the Olympic Games. Once the games start, the times of the women’s hockey games will be posted there.

Ms. McCormack’s mother is overwhelmed by the response. “She’s my daughter, but they all feel like she’s part of them. We’re only a small community here, but the outpouring, to see people pulling together, it’s just incredible. I was in the credit union last week and the people in the line up-got into a discussion with me about Japan.

The McCormack’s have booked their flights and have tickets for all of the women’s hockey games, including the final. The couple fly out Feb. 6 and return Feb. 18. They were stunned when they realized the cost of attending the Olympics, including the $290 per person nightly cost of a hotel room and the $98 to $120 per person cost of attending the women’s hockey games.

The fund-raising blitz to help with those costs is just the latest chapter in a love affair that has blossomed between this tiny village and probably its most famous athlete. Ms. McCormack’s exploits have been followed closely by family and friends – and that’s just about everybody in a place this size – for years. When she was home at Christmas, the community organized an appreciation day to salute her and about 400 people showed up.

The Olympian practically grew up on the ice, her mother said. She started on double-bladed bob skates, then quickly shunned figure skates for hockey skates. She never looked back. She quickly went from rubbing her ankles on the ice in a ditch next to her home to being one of the best players on the local boys teams, playing on outdoor rinks where the only heat was in the dressing room.

Ed Pinder is vice-principal and athletic director at the Blackville School. He played with the senior Miramichi Gagnon Packers when they won the Hardy Cup in 1987 and he remembers Ms. McCormack as probably the most talented female athlete to attend the school in the 13 years he has been there.

“I remember her participating in a shootout between periods during a senior hockey game in Newcastle and she won against a number of boys her own age. It didn’t matter what activity she took up, she was one of those naturally gifted athletes. She was dominant in softball. She caught, she played shortstop, she pitched. She played any position we felt would give us the most bang for our buck.

A good student, she graduated in 1992 as the athlete of the year with an 80+ average. “Kathy’s the type of person who leads by example. She’s quite modest, a person of very few words, not the rah-rah type, but she’s very competitive and very determined,” Mr. Pinder said. Ms. McCormack earned a degree in kinesiology at UNB in Fredericton and is halfway through a two-year education program.

A left winger, she has played some right wing on the Olympic team. During a recent interview she said, “My role is to play a physical game. I’m one of the bigger players at 5’9” and 160 pounds. I forecheck, get in the corners, get in front of the net. I think they like that I’m low risk because I play pretty well defensively. I’ll throw the puck in once in awhile too, so they like my offensive skills too.

They will likely need both to help counter the quick-footed Finns and the big American team, which easily defeated Canada in the championship of a recent tournament involving the three nations.

Ms. McCormack joins Stacy Wilson of Salisbury, Fredericton’s Therese Brisson and Lesley Reddon as part of the New Brunswick contingent on Team Canada.

One person who cannot go to Nagano is perhaps Ms. McCormack’s biggest fan, her 66-year-old grandfather, Hubert Corney. Like Amber, he’s battling cancer. He’s a determined fan, however.

A few years ago, determined to see his granddaughter play in Moncton, he told a doctor treating him for cancer he would have to delay a return to hospital until after the tournament.

He will be watching on television whenever his grandaughter plays, Mr. Corney said.

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