Back in 1977, four Greek-Canadian boys — all cousins, and sons of Greek immigrants to Canada — started a pickup game of hockey in a front yard on Hochelaga Street in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and began a tradition that remains alive today, linking families together throughout the generations.
The boys, from the Greek-Canadian Lentzos, Kourles and Dimas families, had fathers and mothers who had made the extraordinarily difficult decision to leave their homeland and travel 8,000 miles across the Atlantic and then thousands of miles across the prairies of western Canada to make a new start for themselves and their families.
The annual game, played on Christmas Day and dubbed “The Hochelaga Cup,” has now been enshrined in a new film by the same name, directed by Panayioti Yannitsos, another of the cousins.
It all began, says Stephan Lentzos, “with a little game of shinny” in the front yard on Hochelaga Street. But the game of hockey, of course, represents much more than that in Canada, where it runs in the blood of every Canadian.
“For us, it was to find a way to assimilate, because even though we were born here, we were carrying the culture and the ways” of Greece, Lentzos explains in the film.
He says “This is, after all, just a hockey game. But it is much more than that. It was our way to try to fit in to ‘Canadiana.’ And whether we realized it or not, that’s exactly what was happening.”
“Our parents came over from Greece in the late 1950’s,” his cousin Peter Lentzos relates, adding “The economic opportunities at that time (in Greece) weren’t that great.”
Nick Kourles, another cousin, notes that, at that time in Greece, “You were doing well if you could feed your family during the course of every day.”
“When they came here, they struggled”
Stephan Lentzos says, however, that the transition to life in Canada was not easy for any of the immigrants from that era. “You find yourself in a situation where you literally have nothing, your back is against a wall, it’s do or die.
“And that’s what happened with our parents. When they came here, they struggled. They didn’t know the language. Going to the bank was a big deal. Paying your phone bill was a big deal. They didn’t know where to begin.”
His cousin Peter explains “Their lives were endless work. Hours of work, it was going seven days a week.” Stephan then adds, “So if you take that as the starting point, It’s amazing how far they ended up going.”
Nick Kourles recalls that “My Dad, my aunts and uncles, they basically just took a chance. They went 8,000 miles across the ocean, not even knowing what the heck was over there.
“They had just heard that it was better. They wanted to make a life and a family and they wanted to make a new life for this family.”
Demetrios Lentzos, Stephan’s uncle, shown in the film fingering Greek worry beads, is from Milies, near Olympia. He was actually the only person in the family at that time who was even interested in sports. However, Stephan says, “That really rubbed off on me.”
Demetrios explains “They didn’t have television in those days. They had hockey. These kids play for tradition, every year. It’s in their blood. And now they get together… for them not to play hockey on Christmas Day — it doesn’t happen. They must play hockey.”
“Trying to come to terms with who they were”
No one foresaw how meaningful the game would become for the extended Greek-Canadian clan; now the game is even more special because the next generation is getting involved — and, the founders say, their sons are almost more enthusiastic than they are themselves about the annual tradition.
Stephan recalls that although they were born in Canada, the first language for his generation was Greek. He says “When you look back, you’ll see a shining light, and that was four kids playing and trying to come to terms with where they were.”
Nick Kourles’ young son Panos explains what the Hochelaga Cup means to him, saying “I’ve played in the Cup for four years now. I see it as a time to bring family together and to look back on what we came from and to celebrate that, doing something we love.
“It kind of goes past the game of hockey. I’ve played with close relatives and people I love; I might not see all these guys often throughout the year, but when you start to play, you can catch up with them. Those interactions, that’s really what I come for.”
Cousin’s death almost ended the Hochelaga Cup
Despite all the tradition and the love that binds these families together, the annual hockey game could have come to a halt after the sudden death of one of the cousins several years ago. Peter “Moonie” Dimas, known as the one more than any other who helped pull the Hochelaga Cup off every Christmas Day, died suddenly in 2011.
Greek-Canadian Peter Lentzos says, “He was a first cousin to all of us, a best friend to everyone. He was the glue that kept everyone together. That could very well have been the end of the Hochelaga Cup.”
“His number is on our jerseys,” Stephan explains. “There was a sense that this had to carry on because he lived for this. This was his Stanley Cup… We stayed together. And we stayed together, I believe, because of him.”
Nick Kourles admits “Things change. But in the Greek culture, family is important, and this always brings family back together.”
Stephan says “It’s the camaraderie that’s the important part, the sense of family. That’s the part that makes this special. No one remembers who won or lost, it’s the fact that we came together and had a great time on Christmas Day.”
“To keep stuff going like this, sometimes it’s a lot of work,” Nick acknowledged. “Do the work, because it’s worth it. And in the end, you’d miss it if it weren’t there.”
Stephan concludes “It connects different generations of people together. One day, Christmas Day, the one event, one hockey game. And that’s what I think the lasting legacy of this event will be — one year from now or a hundred years from now.”