Story and Photos by Tessa Ratzlaff
On a crisp Friday night, the old blue and white Aldergrove Community Arena sat glowing on the corner of 172nd Street and 29th Avenue.
Typically home to all things Aldergrove – including the Junior B Kodiaks – the building, which has all the sight lines and smells of a well-worn arena on the verge of retirement, had a few special guests who, in reality, weren’t really guests at all.
In a way, with the Trinity Western men’s hockey team hosting a late-season contest at the soon to be obsolete facility – the expected completion of the Aldergrove Credit Union Community Centre this year will signal the old arena's final few breaths – it was something of a homecoming for a sizable contingent of the Spartans.
Family and friends filled the backless blue seats. Just a couple of hours earlier, those seats were filled with engaged and not-so-engaged figure skating parents.
The Spartans men’s hockey team was preparing to host Eastern Washington.
The lights shone down on an ice surface that may have been small, but it was quick – something that benefited the speedy Spartans. Excitement stirred as the Spartans awaited the cue to step onto the ice. The music started. The fans cheered. With the quaint nature of the place, the 140 fans in attendance were enough to create an energetic atmosphere.
“It’s legendary – the old stands (and) the fast ice,” says third-year Lincoln Nikkel, 20, who made his season debut in Aldergrove. “I’m sure the new facility will be nice, but the old ‘Aldy Barn’ will always be remembered as one of the centre pieces in Aldergrove.”
For Nikkel and five of his teammates, the Aldergrove Community Arena is where they spent varying portions of their hockey careers. Many of the boys played together as teammates in Aldergrove – for Aldergrove Minor Hockey and/or the Kodiaks – and now they’re together again, getting the opportunity to play as a group at TWU.
Nikkel joined the Spartans men’s hockey team in his second year at TWU, after playing his first year with the TWU Bombers. This season, his road to Aldergrove saw him miss four months of the season with a shoulder injury. But it was a perfect place to play his first game of the year. Nikkel played his minor hockey in Aldergrove, starting when he was 12 years old and continuing for seven years.
“My shoulder injury made the start of the season tough,” he say. “But to be able to play the first game of the year in my home rink was pretty special for me.”
First-year Dylan Cusmano, 22, started playing for Aldergrove Minor Hockey from initiation hockey until his second year of bantam. Cusmano went on to play three years of midget hockey in Abbotsford, B.C. before he played two years with the Abbotsford Pilots (PJHL – Junior B). He followed that up with a year of Junior A hockey with the Dryden Ice Dogs in Ontario, and two more years of Junior A for the Virden Oil Capitals in Manitoba. Finally, after a few years away from home, Cusmano decided to come back to the Lower Mainland to play for TWU.
“When I started looking into it, the business program at Trinity was really good, and the hockey program was really professionally ran, so it was a win-win,” Cusmano says. “It was really nice to get back in the Aldergrove Arena, and see some of the old fans and buddies out in the crowd.”
For second-year Kade Vilio, 24, he too had plenty of friends and family in the old rink. He tallied two goals and two assists in the Friday night contest and each time he found himself in the mix – on the scoresheet or amidst a goalmouth scramble – his supporters in the stands, which included three of his five siblings, were boisterous.
Vilio started out playing roller hockey in Langley and Abbotsford in his early years. Once he moved to Aldergrove, he played his first year of ice hockey with Aldergrove Minor Hockey, which was his first year of midget.
“I played roller hockey my whole life,” Vilio says. “So in one of my first games in midget, I wasn't used to the contact, and I came out of the zone with my head down, and I got smoked. It took me a bit to get better at that.”
After three years of juvenile hockey in Aldergrove, Vilio turned his focus back to roller hockey along with weight lifting – a venture that has taken him so far that he was featured in a bodybuilding magazine last year. However, that at was until he saw the Spartans practicing two years ago.
“I was working out above a hockey rink, and Trinity was practicing,” Vilio says. “I took a look at the team, and thought it would be fun to play for them.”
Vilio had missed the tryouts prior to the 2016-17 year, but he emailed Spartans coach Barret Kropf anyway.
“I asked for a quick tryout, and after a practice he picked me up.”
After seeing his older brother play at TWU for a year, Elijah Vilio followed in Kade’s footsteps.
Elijah, 20, also started out playing roller hockey when he was young, before turning to ice hockey with Aldergrove Minor Hockey in his first year of peewee.
“When I played in Aldergrove I got to play with Dylan Cusmano for numerous years,” says Elijah, who scored a goal in Friday’s game. “I also affiliated with (Kade’s) juvenile team, and I played a bit with Lincoln.”
Before coming to TWU, Elijah also played two years with the Kodiaks, and then after being influenced by his brother, joined the Spartans.
Defenceman Stefan Gonzales, 25, is finishing up his fifth year at TWU, and also played for the Kodiaks his last junior year. As Gonzales put it, “to be back on the ice in Aldergrove after almost six years was something else. That place will always be special to me, and was one of my favourite places ever to play a hockey game. I was grateful for the chance to rip around the ‘Bear Cave’ one last time.”
Brandon Potomak, 22, who also scored a goal Friday night in Aldergrove, started out with his first few three years of initiation ice hockey in Aldergrove. After playing his first junior year with the Kodiaks, three years playing major junior with Moose Jaw (WHL) and a year with the Junior A Chilliwack Chiefs (BCHL), Potomak is now in his first year at TWU.
“It was a pretty special night for me to play in Aldergrove, since that is where I learned to skate and where I played my first few seasons of hockey,” Potomak says.
When the final horn sounded Friday night, TWU had earned an 11-1 win over the Eagles. The Aldergrove boys combined for six goals and added four assists, as the Spartans won their 17th game of the year, which equaled their program-high for wins in a season.
The pipeline from Aldergrove to TWU has become a rather rich venture and these small town Aldergrove boys have been a critical part to TWU’s success.
Kropf acknowledges the Aldergrove connection has been an essential piece to having a successful season so far.
“The guys bring great experience, efficiency and a lot of hard work,” Kropf says. “I think it was really special for them to play back in Aldergrove, since there are a lot of childhood memories there for a lot of the guys.”
As for the Aldergrove boys, TWU has been a perfect university-level landing spot.
“Trinity has been an unbelievable experience this past year,” Potomak says. “Getting back into school and hockey has been an easier transition due to Trinity and the people I have been able to meet along the way.”
As for the Vilio brothers, they love the community, the team, and the atmosphere at TWU.
Cusmano expresses his feelings toward the team, and enjoys that although there is hockey, there are relationships away from the rink as well. Nikkel agrees, as has enjoyed the quality and diversity within the team.
“I can talk with any one of them and have a unique conversation,” Nikkel says. “The backgrounds vary so much, making the environment a lot of fun.”
When Nikkel scored his first goal on Friday night, there were nothing but loud cheers and screams
Even with the Spartans already well ahead, Nikkel’s second goal of the night late in the third period still brought the whole “Aldy Barn” to its feet.
Not a single fan left early Friday night. The stands stayed packed until the last second.
It was fitting finish for a unique connection. From Aldergrove to TWU and, for at least one night, back to Aldergrove, the pipeline gushed.