Imagine trying to play hockey before learning how to skate. Seems crazy, right?
There was a time, a quarter century ago, when many young boys and girls signed up to play minor hockey before they mastered how to maneuver around a sheet ice on a pair of steel blades.
So, John Siecker, who was in charge of education and development for the Orillia Minor Hockey Association (OMHA) at the time, had an idea. He thought local kids should be able to participate in a program focused on the fundamentals of skating before they picked up a hockey stick. And he knew the perfect person to turn his vision into reality: Gail Duck.
“I taught his daughter figure skating,” recalled Duck, who taught figure skating for over 50 years. “He told me what he wanted and asked me if I could make it work. I can remember thinking, ‘I can do that. I’d love to do that!’”
Duck said Siecker told her it “wasn’t fair that kids were being divided up onto teams and expected to play when they couldn’t skate and I totally agreed with him,” she said. “The idea was to create a program where kids could learn to skate and learn the fundamentals of hockey so when they got on a team, they had a rough idea of what they should be doing.”
The dynamic duo created what has become known as the Mighty Mytes program aimed at kids aged three to six. Last week, Duck presided over her final ‘graduation game’ after deciding to retire following 24 years heading up the popular program.
“Mentally and physically, I can still do it, but I think it’s time for someone younger to take over,” said Duck of what she admitted was a “very difficult decision.”
Her retirement sparked a flood of social media messages about the legacy of her work: “Gail, you have been an awesome role model, teacher and instructor for so many skaters and hockey players!” wrote Mark Scott.
Added Patti Seek: “Generations of kids/youth/adults have been touched by your love of the sport and skill. You have had a profound impact on the youth of Orillia and, in turn, their teams and families. Your dedication, care, and concern for every student has truly been a gift.”
Duck was surprised by the reaction. “I thought they were speaking about someone else,” she said with a chuckle. “I just always thought I was a little bit eccentric and had no idea the impact I had … I just believed in what I was doing and tried to improve every year.”
It’s easy today to think of Duck, her wild white hair barely contained by her gaudy purple helmet, navigating the ice at Rotary Place with grace and ease as she moves from group to group to pass along pointers and keep her charges in check. But when she started, it was a different story.
After teaching figure skating and power skating, she had “this brilliant idea” that hockey players could become better if they learned to skate better. So, she sent applications to 65 different hockey schools throughout the land – and received just three responses. Only one took her seriously: The Walk Tkackuk Hockey School in St. Mary’s.
She vividly remembers hitting the ice with established NHL stars, looking out into the crowd and seeing wealthy, wide-eyed parents, wondering ‘What am I doing here?’ “But then I just decided to forget they were there. I put my head down and got to work.”
Those behind the school were impressed. She quickly won their respect and had the chance to work with Tkackuk and other NHLers like Brad Park, Terry Crisp, Ed Giacomin and Don Luce. She said Giacomin, a New York Rangers goalie, “was the best skater I ever saw.”
Luce, on the other hand, needed help. One day, he asked Duck to rate his skating. He did a few laps and then, a little out of breath, skated up to her and asked her what she thought. “Do you want the truth or do you want me to be nice?” she asked the NHLer. He said he wanted the truth. “I said, ‘You skate like you got a load in your pants,’” she recalled with a chuckle. Luce, to his credit, accepted the criticism. “He said, ‘OK, fix it!’ And I fixed it.”
That, in a nutshell, is Duck: unafraid of being a little different, of trying something off-beat, of speaking her mind. It’s why she still wears figure skates when everyone told her she should wear hockey skates.
And while she set the tone and created a culture that made the mighty mytes program a hit, she says others played a vital role. Her parents, she noted, always supported her and helped her; her dad, who worked at CCM for more than 40 years, used to find a way for a few sticks ordered by Dave Keon and Ron Ellis to find their way into his daughter’s hands. She said her kids and her husband were also ardent supporters.
Her on-ice assistants were also a “huge part” of the program’s success, she said. “They worked for me but they were part of the team,” said Duck. “They knew I couldn’t see every kid in every group, so it was up to them to make the program work, too, and they always stepped up to the plate … I can’t say enough about those kids.”
Those kids, in recent years, twice ensured the show, as they say, would go on. Three years ago, Duck broke her knee and, a year later, suffered a mild stroke. In both instances, she kept teaching.
“Everyone started to panic and I said, ‘It’s OK. I can teach from the boards. I just need someone to be my feet,’” she said. “They went with it. When you love what you’re doing, you work your way around it. I really credit those kids, my helpers, for making it work.”
Duck certainly made it work – something that was always evident in each season’s much-anticipated ‘grad game’ where young players put what they learned to the test in a game in which, typically, the stands were full of parents, friends and family members. At those games, OMHA official Ron McKay acted as the announcer, Terry Smith refereed and the kids felt like they were on Hockey Night in Canada.
Terry Smith has seen his share of those grad games. He was on the OMHA executive when the program began and refereed that first contest in which the graduates showed how far they had come.
“It was fun to be on the ice with the grads,” Smith recalled. “So many of the players had come so far since the first day when they had stepped on the ice and many couldn't stay up on their skates.”
When one of his sons participated in the program, he got a different perspective on the program. “It was great to watch it from start to finish and at the end of that year he was able to skate pretty well and even though hockey didn't turn out to be his thing he enjoys getting on the ice for a good skate whenever he can,” said Smith.
Ironically, this year, Smith is back on the OMHA executive serving as Director of Officials and found himself on the ice as a referee for Duck’s last group of grads.
“I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little choked up when I found out it was her last season and all of these years later I was back out with her again,” said Smith. “She and her team have done a wonderful job over the years of developing young skaters … she has done a great service to Orillia’s hockey community.”
Seeing that development is something Duck will miss. She has no doubt she will be drawn back to the rinks next winter as a spectator. She will also spend more time with her seven Great Pyrenees; she breeds and shows the dogs. There is also always lots of work to be done around the family farm.
“There are other things I think I’d like to do,” she says. “But I can’t get the rink out of my blood. I’m sure I’ll wander down and watch a few games.”