Pictou Advocate sports

Blayre Turnbull decade’s top story


Well, the fuss is over, we’ve sung Auld Lang Syne to death, we’ve emptied the last carton of eggnog, and we’ve landed safely in the new decade.

My younger son whispered that I’m now in my 10th decade, and that my newspaper career has extended into an eighth decade. Quite the flattering, eh?

With that said, my 2020 Pictou Advocate calendar is in place on the kitchen wall, nudging me to review the last 10 years and recall some of the highlights and lowlights in our lives.

Pictou County sports is no exception.

There were local achievements that made Pictonians proud. There were happenings that confirmed we mustn’t sidetrack development.

Highlights included the opening of the Pictou County Wellness Centre, the ongoing excellence of the Pictou County Crushers hockey organization, and the inductions of Lawrence Hafey and Colin White into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame.

As well, there were two unforgettable recent events in the county — the region’s biggest-ever curling spectacle at the Wellness Centre, and the 20th anniversary celebrations of the Women Alike Abreast A River dragon boat organization on the East River.

On the other side of the ledger, there were the demolition of John Brother MacDonald Stadium, a threatening similar fate for Stellarton Memorial Rink and, as time moves on unrelentingly, the deaths of too many of our fine athletes, coaches and sports executives.

That brings me to a pleasant task: What, in my opinion, was the county’s biggest sports accomplishment in the last 10 years?

That’s usually a difficult decision to make. Picking one major achievement ahead of all the other successes isn’t easy.

This time, however, it wasn’t hard.

Fact is, after doing some necessary homework, I didn’t hesitate a bit in selecting what I believed was the most outstanding story in the 2010s.

My choice: Blayre Turnbull.

The Stellarton hockey player climaxed her impressive list of honours during the decade when she travelled 13 time zones away to play for the Canadian women’s team at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. No one needs to be reminded that she and her teammates reached the gold medal game before losing to arch-rival United States.

Back home, Pictonians stood and cheered one of their own.

Through the generations, Pictou County has had many fine performers starring in many different disciplines. Yet Blayre became just the second local athlete to participate in an Olympic Games in the last 100 years.

Interestingly, the previous local Olympian was also from Stellarton, boxer Les (Babe) Mason, who competed at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia. He lost his only fight there, but his name has been attached to the Olympics for 64 years.

Blayre, of course, was one of two Nova Scotians to make the women’s roster, the other being Jillian Saulnier, of Halifax. Not to be overlooked, the club’s assistant coach was Troy Ryan, of Spryfield, who coached the Pictou County Crushers in their first five seasons.

It made for exciting hockey action for fans across this province.

But back to Blayre.

Her story is surely known to all Pictou County hockey followers.

Her career, ironically, began in the same facility as Mason’s — Stellarton Memorial Rink.

That’s where she got into the sport as a novice, playing on a boys’ team that included her brother Brent, who later went on to play varsity hockey for St. Francis Xavier University.

Initially she learned to skate on a pond near her home, then played on novice, atom, peewee and bantam clubs in the Pictou County Minor Hockey Association. When she reached grade 9 in Stellarton, she was a member of the school team.

It wasn’t a career void of heartaches while she was growing up.

Not long after she reached her teens, her parents separated. Only two years later, her mother, an elementary school teacher, lost a battle with cancer.

Blayre went south of the border to continue her education and hockey career. She attended Shattuck-Saint Mary’s prep school in Minnesota, the same school where Cole Harbour natives Sidney Crosby and Nathan MacKinnon went on their way to National Hockey League stardom.

How good was the Stellarton girl in the States? Good enough to help the school win two consecutive national high school championships. Good enough to receive a full athletic scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. Good enough to be a prime reason why that institution won the NCAA crown.

She didn’t stop there. She came back to Canada and played for the national women’s team. Then she joined the Calgary Inferno and helped them win a Canadian Women’s Hockey League title.

It became a habit — everywhere she went, championships seemed to follow. No wonder she reached her Olympic objective.

She had dreamed about representing Canada when she was eight years old, when she watched the Olympics from Salt Lake City in 2002.

As South Korea drew closer, she was being interviewed by media people across the country. I particularly remember one quotation that was attributed to her: “I’ve never been so excited in my life.”

It’s hard to realize that almost two years have passed by since Turnbull’s Olympic experience. Like Mason before her, that Olympic tag will stick with her for the rest of her life. The adventure was that big.

Something else is going to stick, too – an increased interest in girls’ hockey in the local area because of what Blayre did.

Young girls who play hockey locally learned something very important in 2018 — that the dream of representing Canada at Olympic and international competitions really can happen, even for players in a small community like Pictou County.

Considering the whole picture, I think you can understand why I had no difficulty in choosing Blayre’s career as the biggest sports story locally in the past decade.

I’m just as confident she’ll someday achieve another proud moment – induction into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame.