Ask Graeme Murray about childhood days spent at the Centennial Centre rink in Gravenhurst, Ont., and years of warm memories wash over his face.
“I learned to stickhandle (there). I learned my wrist shot and my slap shot,” he says, smiling. “It was just freedom on the ice, and that’s what I looked forward to as a kid. Everything that was going on outside of hockey, I could get on the ice and forget about it all.”
Twenty years later, Murray’s hometown wants everyone to remember how its local boy made good in the hockey world. On Saturday, Sept. 20, the rink where the defenceman learned the skills that would one day lead him to play in four Paralympic Winter Games was renamed the Graeme Murray Arena.
“The town of Gravenhurst has always been my biggest fan,” says Murray, who won a gold medal at the 2006 Paralympic Winter Games. “And to me this is showing what the epitome of that support is. I’m really thankful.”
The honour came about when the community of 12,000, located about 90 minutes north of Toronto, wanted to find a way to show Murray how thankful they were for inspiring them.
“When it became apparent that our beloved rink needed renovating and upgrading,” says Mayor Paisley Donaldson, “we knew that renaming the arena would be a way to celebrate Graeme’s accomplishments.”
The $1.5 million makeover included not only installing new boards and a new refrigeration system, but also making the rink fully accessible for sledge hockey. That includes new sledge-friendly flooring from the dressing rooms to the benches, which have removable seats and glass in the boards.
The first game to be played on the newly-named rink was an exhibition match between the South Muskoka Shield and a team of Murray and his friends, including 2014 Paralympic teammates Karl Ludwig, Anthony Gale, Tyler McGregor and Billy Bridges.
Murray’s bronze-medal-winning teammates were thrilled to help celebrate their friend, with Ludwig calling him a pioneer for the sport.
“Graeme’s a great teammate and friend, and I’m proud of all his accomplishments,” adds McGregor. “He deserves this honour as much as anybody. I’m very happy for him and I’m really happy to be a part of his day.”
Among the nearly 300 people who also turned out for the official unveiling were Tony Clement, the Member of Parliament for Parry Sound-Muskoka, and members of the Rink Rats, the pick-up team that bought an 11-year-old Murray his first sledge sled.
Marta Proctor, the director of arts, culture and recreation for the city of Gravenhurst, read letters from David Onley, the lieutenant-governor of Ontario; Michael Coteau, the minister of tourism, culture and sport; and Gaétan Tardif, the president of the Canadian Paralympic Committee, who wrote that “perhaps, one day a future Paralympian will play sledge hockey in the newly-named arena and be inspired to play for their country just like Graeme.”
That next generation took was able to get on the ice in the afternoon for some one-on-one instruction from the Paralympians. But only after that 30-minute demonstration game that had the crowd applauding Gale setting up one of the Shield forwards playing with the Paralympians, gasping every time Bridges let loose his 80-miles-per-hour shot and, of course, cheering anytime Murray touched the puck. (There may have also been some gentle chuckles when the team failed to get a shot off on a four-on-none break….) Murray and friends won the game 6-1.
The Graeme Murray Arena is now the seventh sledge-accessible rink in Ontario. The city has come a long way since Murray first strapped himself into a sled. In 1995, city staff worked with the community and Graeme’s parents, Angus and Bernene, to introduce the town’s first sledge hockey program. Murray even recruited his friends to play to keep the program going.
While there is no formal sledge program in Gravenhurst now, introductory initiatives are on the way. Saturday’s celebration was Day 1. “Today we’re starting with our first demonstration, and then our intention is to offer further demonstration programs and see if there’s interest in doing some recreational pickup leagues,” says Proctor.
On top of that, donations collected during the day and on behalf of businesses and individuals are going into the newly-created Graeme Murray Arena Sledge Hockey Program Reserve.
“I’m just doing (what I) love,” said Murray, his voice breaking as he addressed the crowd. “I can see that you love watching me do what I love and it mean a lot to me. When you all come together the way that you do, it means that I can accomplish what I want to.”