With the Stanley Cup playoffs in full swing, writer Lucas Aykroyd catches up with former NHLers Matt Walker and Dave Babych and highlights links between hockey and craft beer in BC.

Hockey and beer. For many British Columbians, those two topics are as inseparable as the Sedin twins. When the Vancouver Canucks get on a roll, naturally passion heightens and pints are downed, but the connections go beyond that.

Take Matt Walker. During his 314-game NHL career, the gritty defenceman played with hockey greats like St. Louis’s Pavol Demitra, Chicago’s Jonathan Toews, and Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos. Yet as far as BC craft beer fans are concerned, Walker’s biggest score might have come in retirement when he began providing liquid refreshment.

Walker hung up his skates in 2012, moved to the Kootenays in 2014, and bought the Nelson Brewing Company in 2016. Operating this award-winning, organic brewery in the Southern Interior city of 10,000, the 40-year-old is part of a growing tribe of NHLers taking part in the BC Ale Trail, whether as brewers or beer buffs.

Nelson Brewing on the BC Ale Trail
Nelson Brewing

Walker’s wife Kate doubles as his business partner, and she has deep roots in this scenic community in the Selkirk Mountains.

“I met my wife, who’s from Nelson, in Christina Lake during the 2005 NHL lockout,” Walker said. “Her dad [former Nelson mayor Dave Elliot] was one of the original investors in the Nelson Brewing Company way back in 1991. So when I visited Nelson for the first time, that was when I first tried the NBC brand. After my hockey career ended, we were coming back home, and a couple of the original owners approached us to see if we were interested in the brewery. We really wanted to be part of something that was part of the Kootenay culture. We jumped all over that opportunity.”

Nelson Brewing on the BC Ale Trail
Nelson Brewing Company

So today, what does this 1998 Memorial Cup winner with the Portland Winterhawks recommend for fans looking to quaff a high-quality cold one while watching the Stanley Cup playoffs?

Former NHLer Matt Walker operates the Nelson Brewing Company.

“My personal favourite among our light beers is the Hooligan Pilsner. It’s a fantastic beer. I know Harvest Moon, which is a Kölsch-style hemp ale, has been one of our most popular beers for a decade or more now, but the Pilsner’s starting to fight its way in there. I go from the Pilsner on the light side to Bent Pole, which is my go-to IPA. Our amber beer does very well at a lot of the pubs here in town, and then in cans, it doesn’t go quite as much as the Pilsner. Honestly, I never was a Pilsner drinker. Growing up, it was never on my list. But this Hooligan’s won me over!”

Walker’s true indoctrination into the craft beer faith came midway through his nine-year NHL career. Originally, St. Louis drafted Walker in the third round (83rd overall) in 1998. He spent four seasons there, and Missouri’s second-largest city is built around Budweiser. However, after signing a one-year deal with Chicago for 2008-09, he explored the Windy City’s burgeoning beer scene with Blackhawks teammates Cam Barker and Ben Eager.

“I was 28 years old,” Walker recalled. “That’s kind of when I stopped drinking anything from the large breweries and stuck with craft beer. The bombers were obviously huge back then, and there were tons of breweries in Chicago.”

Nelson Brewing on the BC Ale Trail
Nelson Brewing Company

Nowadays, he enjoys welcoming ex-Blues buddies like Eric Brewer, a 2002 Olympic gold medalist, and Ryan Johnson, the GM of the AHL’s Utica Comets, to the Nelson Brewing Company, which occupies an 1897-built building. However, there’s a caveat: “There’s no free rides around here! You gotta help out. Brewie, he jumped on the canning line. I think he sat there for almost two hours, which was quite funny. Everybody else there just got to take a break and watch the big man go to work!”

Other retired NHLers, like Canucks legend Trevor Linden, might drop by during a summer getaway or winter ski trip. That said, after being retired for nearly 10 years, Walker admits he doesn’t follow hockey quite as closely any more.

Who does Walker cheer for during the post-season? That’s mostly dictated by childhood preferences or old pals. To illustrate, Walker, who was born in Beaverlodge, Alberta, grew up rooting for the Wayne Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers. He’s friends with Mike Smith, a Tampa Bay teammate in 2009-10, and found himself pulling for the Oilers netminder this year.

Mostly, Walker has his hands full with three young daughters Georgia, Lennox, and Taylor and a busy schedule at the brewery with Kate from Monday to Friday. They’re proud to support the local Junior B hockey team, the Nelson Leafs of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, with awards. Down the road, Walker aspires to expand his tasting room and sell more beer in Alberta.

Nelson Brewing Company's quaint brewery building.
Nelson Brewing Company’s quaint brewery building. 
Photo: Dave Heath, daveheathphotography.com

“It seems like craft beer in BC has just exploded,” Walker said. “Especially in the last four or five years, it’s in every little town now. When we bought the Nelson Brewing Company, it was one of the only breweries in our Kootenay area. Now there’s many of them!”

Although Dave Babych hasn’t invested in a brewery (yet), this former Canuck certainly enjoys checking out the BC Ale Trail. Notching 723 points in 1,195 career NHL games, the famously moustachioed defenceman starred with the Winnipeg Jets and Hartford Whalers in the 1980s. Vancouver fans celebrated his playoff exploits in the 1990s, including the 1994 run to the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Rangers.

Today, Babych, 59, lives not far from North Vancouver’s Deep Cove Brewers and Distillers, but his first taste of Vancouver craft beer came on Granville Island. Winnipeg’s #2 overall pick in the 1980 NHL Draft also has happy memories from pioneering mid-90s brewpubs like Yaletown Brewing and Steamworks.

“When you start having craft beer, you go, ‘That’s pretty good!’” Babych said. “You see that there’s another beer world out there. Once you try some of those flavoured beers, it’s tough to go back.”

Recently, he got sponsored by Parallel 49 while giving some Zoom talks. Admitting he’s not a fan of sours, Babych describes himself as a “pale ale or IPA guy.” He’s an active member of the Vancouver Canucks Alumni Association, along with fellow local residents like Kirk McLean and Cliff Ronning, and that offers more chances to broaden his beer palate.

Dave Babych (fourth from left) poses with fellow Vancouver Canucks alumni Jyrki Lumme, Cliff Ronning, Gino Odjick, and Kirk McLean (L to R). Photo Credit: Vancouver Canucks

“When we have our alumni skates or golf tournaments, we get sponsored by a few different breweries,” Babych said. “Wherever they’re from, be it Surrey or Langley or Pitt Meadows or Vancouver or North Vancouver, everyone brings a couple of cases just for the guys to try. And you know what? It’s really hard to find a bad beer from all these places!”

Babych’s business interests in booze are currently limited to his Barrel 44 red wine from Oliver’s Desert Hills Estate Winery. If he ever makes the transition from beer fan to brewery owner, he says he wants to focus on quality over quantity.

“It’s funny: I was asked to invest in a brewery in Hartford, because I played there for six years and my wife’s from there. We’ve got family there. And it didn’t work out. I’m glad I didn’t, because these guys, instead of just having five real outstanding beers, went for like 15. And they lost track of the essence of doing an outstanding job, spreading it out and watering it down. To me, you make your go-tos and then maybe have one seasonal, four times a year. And that would be it. You want to make sure you do it right.”

During the 1994 run, Babych was involved in three signature plays that had Canucks fans spraying beer everywhere.

First, in double overtime against the Calgary Flames in the first round, he moved the puck cross-ice to Jeff Brown, who found Pavel Bure with a breakaway pass for the thrilling Game Seven winner. Second, in the Western Conference final versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, Greg Adams converted the rebound from Babych’s point shot to win Game Five in sudden death at the Pacific Coliseum and send the Canucks to the finals. Third, Babych’s goal against the Rangers with 10:29 left in Game Five at Madison Square Garden stood up as the tie-breaker in a 6-3 final.

Which of those moments is his favourite?

“Beating Toronto was probably the most rewarding just because it’s Toronto! And the way we did it. We took it to ’em pretty good, and we knew we had a real good chance to win the series anyway. But the shot I took, it was one of those things you get it through, you never know what’s going to happen. I think maybe [Leafs goalie Felix Potvin] thought it was coming harder than it was and misplayed it! Of course, old Gus Adams there, he was where he was supposed to be. To get to the Stanley Cup final, beating Toronto, what better thing could happen than that?”

This year, the two-time NHL All-Star Game participant has enjoyed watching Vancouver rookie Quinn Hughes blossom as one of the league’s premier offensive blueliners with his great skating and ability to find the seams. Babych is impressed by the ability of current NHLers to stay mentally strong in the pandemic-mandated bubbles of Edmonton and Toronto, which he jokingly dubs “white-collar prison.”

With more time to explore craft beer while sticking close to home, he’s also occasionally served as the designated driver when his  sons check out East Vancouver’s breweries.

The Vancouver Canucks thrill hockey and beer fans with great stars. Photo: Lucas Aykroyd

In terms of connections between hockey and BC craft beer, we’ve just scraped the ice surface. Surrey’s Central City makes a lager called Beer League. In 2016, when ex-Canucks Willie Mitchell and Dan Hamhuis celebrated their plans to launch the Tofino Resort + Marina on Vancouver Island, they held a community barbecue featuring Tofino Brewing beers.

The 2013- founded Bomber Brewing in East Van was originally the brainchild of buddies playing on the Vancouver Bombers men’s rec hockey team. Beer League Bash is a fun annual Vancouver hockey tournament with four teams of craft brewers facing off and more than 25 breweries – including the likes of Steel & Oak and Main Street Brewing – serving their wares at a community rink. (The 2020 edition was postponed, so stay tuned for a new date.)

The Sportsbar at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena serves BC craft beer and gourmet pub food to hockey fans.

If you simply want to enjoy a wide array of BC beers while getting your NHL fix, The Sportsbar, a 14,000-square-foot venue at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena, shows hockey on more than 100 TVs and offers 22-ounce giant pints from 33 Acres, Parkside, Hoyne Brewing,  and other breweries.

Regardless of the final score, you’re always a winner when you pair hockey with smart beer-drinking choices on the BC Ale Trail.

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