Johnny Parsons reflects on what makes Springhill special
Springhill has always been a special place for John ‘Johnny’ Parsons, especially the arena.
© Christopher Gooding photo
Johnny Parsons has been a familiar faces at the arena in Springhill for more than 45 years now. The announcement Springhill will no longer be a town in a year saddens him, but his greatest concern is for the people who have made the community a special place for him to live in.
There are a lot of little details needed to make a hockey game successful for the players and the audience, and Parsons has mastered most of them over the last 46 years – edging the ice surface, making sure the hockey nets are square and set. Sometimes it’s just being an extra set of eyes or letting out a hurrah when the home team scores, and Parsons has been happy to be there to do it. It all began when he was a boy.
“I was only about 10 years old when I started becoming a ‘rink rat,’” Parsons said with his familiar stammer that starts his sentences before a quick succession of words afterwards. “I just went over one day when I was 10 and Jim Pyke was one of the guys who worked there. He started getting me to help out. And the late Ed MacLean, he got me to start helping out doing this and doing that. We’d flood the ice by hand with big barrels of water and helping out started growing on me. I was balancing school and the arena. Then high school and the arena. But I loved every minute of it. I was helping out and making sure the kids were okay. ”
That was when Springhill’s arena was situated at the end of the Lions Park, not the prominent community centre the community has today. The roof of the old arena collapsed in 2001 with 150 people inside, including Parsons. No one was injured during the incident, but it was a day that still haunts him, he says.
“It was going into the second period of hockey and I went out back. Then the sound. It hit me like a bat,” Parsons said.
The Zamboni station Parsons was heading for was at the far end of the arena and it would be a long run for Parsons to get to the front of the building where people were exiting. With the commotion and uncertainty taking place as the metal rods that held the roof up began to snap and twist, Parsons was almost overwhelmed.
“A young fella was freaked right out,” Parsons said. “I remember telling him ‘Run. Don’t look back,’ and I stayed behind him until he was out and safe.”
Keeping an eye on the child’s safety, Parsons caught a glimpse of the arena office, cafeteria and storage rooms buckling under the weight of the roof. It was devastating for Parsons. Inside was his famed Chilli Willi suit, which for years offered him a part in the community’s spotlight each year when the Chilli Willi Winter Carnival rolled around.
“There were two of us. Billy Ward was first until he couldn’t do it anymore, then he passed it on to me,” Parsons said. “You wouldn’t believe the number of kids who loved Chilli Willi. Just to see their smiles. It was awesome. I’ve seen kids from back then who are all grown up and still happy to see me. They have kids now.
“I loved putting on the suit. I would see little kids faces smile and go ‘Mom. It’s Chilli Willi. And I would go over and pat their heads.”
The loss of his costume, which was never replaced, and the arena were significant low points in Parsons’ life. It was a boring time, Parsons said, but the void in his life was filled by the much bigger Dr. Carson and Marion Murray Community Centre. But it’s not just the arena that is important to Parsons. It’s the town and its community.
The decision to dissolve the Town of Springhill will have a major impact on Parson’s day-to-day life. Still living with family, he doesn’t worry about taxes the same way others do. An avid walker and bicyclist, he doesn’t worry about road paving the same way most drivers do. What he does worry about is each and every person who works for the town. His relationship with the community goes beyond the arena or Lions Park, where he removes litter every morning in the summer to keep the park presentable.
“The people here, at the community centre and the town, they’re like my second family. If something happens, if someone gets sick, we’re there for one another. I do a lot of stuff for the seniors, like check their mail, so I do the mail run for town hall every day. I’m happy to help people out and they’re happy to see me.
“The Public Works, every time the boys drive by they wave or honk the horn at me. They’re like my buddies. I’m worried about their jobs, too.”
When Parsons found himself without a bicycle and unable to save enough money to buy a new one, let alone a used one, it was the members of the Springhill Police Service that quietly took up the charge to raise the money amongst themselves to help him out.
“That day was such a shock. If it wasn’t for the police department I still wouldn’t have a bike. I wouldn’t know how to get around.”
Parsons admits he knew something like dissolution was going to happen someday to Springhill. Something had to happen. But where some see a municipal government, tax bills or debts, Parsons sees his community – an extended family that looks out for him as he looks out for them. Before Parson’s mother passed, town employees kept him close to their hearts and under their wing, Parsons said, and now as the community’s township is coming to pass, he’s extending the same comfort to his community and words for the team transitioning Springhill into the county.
“I hope they can resolve something for Springhill. I know they’re trying their best and I’m happy to help out any way I can. What goes around comes around. That’s how my mom raised me.”
Living in Springhill, being part of the arena and having a role to play with the town has been a special thing, filled with special memories, Parson’s said, and he doesn’t want that to change.
“Believe me, I’ve enjoyed every bit of it. I just wish I could go back and do it all over again.”