A state of emergency has just been called by the State of New York for the North Country.
The second half of the annual home-and-home rivalry between two North Country neighbors, Clarkson and St. Lawrence, takes place this weekend at Appleton Arena in Canton, N.Y. — an event that North Country residents look forward to every year. And in light of what has happened in recent weeks, they are anticipating it even more.
On Jan. 8, 1998, a freak weather pattern created havoc in the northernmost reaches of New England and New York, as well as southern Quebec and Ontario. The result: an ice storm.
The storm lasted almost two days, dumping inches of ice on a swath of land that included ECAC communities Potsdam, Canton and Burlington, which suffered the brunt of the storm. Burlington was hit hard, but even more damage was incurred in Potsdam and Canton.
During and after the storm, Potsdam and Canton suffered electrical outages, downed trees and power lines, heat loss, water loss and displaced people, and in some areas, five inches of ice. New York called a state of emergency in the North Country, and the whole area became a maze of distress.
The ice storm affected every facet of life, including the hockey teams at Clarkson and St. Lawrence.
The Golden Knights’ home, Cheel Arena, was turned into a shelter for those without access to their homes. Inside Cheel, cots were set up for those in need of a place to sleep and get heat, and the kitchen was opened to serve those that were hungry and could not cook for themselves.
“It’ll be years until the community [of Potsdam] will be back on its feet,” said Clarkson head coach Mark Morris. “It was an absolutely devastating time. There are people without heat [or] a place to sleep, and hungry. To date people are still trying to put their lives back in order.”
Morris and his coaches used their office as a place to stay with their families during the crisis. The Golden Knight players, as well as those on the men’s and women’s basketball teams, were called into volunteer service — everything from cooking to serving to cleaning to consoling those that came through the doors of Cheel.
On one day alone after the storm, more than 3,500 people were served food when they entered through Cheel’s doors.
“We did a small part compared to what some of the other volunteers did,” said Morris about his team. “It’s unbelievable if you look at the amount of help that people gave during such a difficult time. You really see people’s true colors come out in a time of need.”
Volunteers and crews from other parts of the state continue to help the North Country get back on its feet, but there is still a lot of work to be done. At this writing, almost 90 percent of the community has had electrical power restored, but several rural areas are still affected.
In terms of hockey, the Friday and Saturday after the ice storm hit, Clarkson and St. Lawrence were scheduled to host a pair of games with New Hampshire and UMass-Lowell. That entire series was cancelled due to the storm and the ensuing emergency.
In Canton, the Saints’ home, Appleton Arena, lost its ice surface when the electricity went out. Cheel was also close to losing its ice, and besides, Cheel was also being used as a shelter.
In Burlington, the game between Yale and Vermont scheduled for Jan. 9 was switched to Saturday afternoon. The damage in Burlington was not as severe, but still enough to create electrical outages, downed power lines and displacement of its residents.
Gutterson Fieldhouse was running on an auxiliary generator, and even that conked out on the morning of the Jan. 9, in the middle of a meeting involving Vermont and Yale personnel.
UVM Sports Information Director Gordon Woodworth had to hold a flashlight in order for Yale head coach Tim Taylor to use the telephone, to call the Yale athletic director in order to inform him of the game’s cancellation.
“The best thing to do was to stay inside,” said Woodworth. “Just stay home and let people do their jobs to get back to normal.”
Vermont and Dartmouth were scheduled to visit the North Country the weekend after the storm. Those games were switched to Vermont and Dartmouth because the North Country was still in disarray.
Clarkson was forced to move its practices to Lake Placid, 80 miles away. There was a physical toll, but there also was a mental toll.
“It took some time for the younger kids to comprehend what was going on,” said Morris. “Some of us that are older have been through situations where we have been without power, but some of the younger kids couldn’t comprehend it. `What do you mean, we don’t have electricity?’
“In a time like this, having lights, heat and electricity is something that you just can’t take for granted.”
“I am proud of the way the guys handled everything,” said Saint head coach Joe Marsh. “We learned that there is a lot more to life than hockey games over the last week.”
There was also a lot of concern among team members for their families. Many of the athletes are Canadians, and southern Quebec and Ontario were also hit pretty hard.
Vermont’s Andrew Allen is from Van Kleek Hill, Ont., a rural dairy community. His father, John, was interviewed on CNN after the storm regarding the damage and its effect, and Van Kleek Hill is still not back to normal.
Electrical crews continue to work throughout the night to bring a sense of normalcy back to the northern parts of the Northeast. Some people are still without water, heat and electricity. It has been a difficult time for all, and adversity is an understatement.
That brings us to Saturday, and the annual North Country rivalry between the Golden Knights and the Skating Saints.
Knight and Saint hockey are a way of life for many people in the North Country. Potsdam and Canton are just 10 miles apart on Route 11, and the game usually generates a lot of hoopla, but it pales in comparison to what has happened.
“It’s strange because it just doesn’t feel like St. Lawrence week,” said Clarkson’s Sports Information Director Gary Mikel. “People are still getting back to their regular routines.”
But there is a hockey game to be played, and bragging rights of the North Country are on the line. So don’t blame anyone for trying to make everything sound normal.
“We are hoping things will start to get back to normal this week,” said Marsh. “We are looking forward to a good week of practice and then a strong effort against Clarkson on Saturday night.”
The community is looking forward to the game as a part of getting back to everday life, but one can’t help but be reminded of what happened three weeks ago.
“People are longing for something to talk about, and I think it’s a welcome break,” said Morris. “But then you go home after the game and you look at all the fallen trees in your front yard, and all the people getting their lives back in order — that’s what’s important.”
It is, after all, just a game.