From joy to grief; Nipawin Hawks mourn death of steadfast volunteer

Joel Verklan was a feature at the Centennial Arena in Nipawin. Photo by Richard Peterson.

If there is a consistent description of Joel Verklan it is the word joy, but that’s followed by vibrant, happy and someone who lived happily in the moment

Joel, who would have turned 26 this July 1, was a fixture at the Nipawin Hawks games, practices and in the dressing room at Centennial arena. He died unexpectedly the morning of Jan. 27.

“He was innocent and sweet,” said Interim head coach and general manager, Tad Kozun, of Joel’s personality. “I don’t think he ever missed a game.” 

He was also a dedicated volunteer and fan who folded jerseys, picked up pucks, filled water bottles and carried a bag of hats to every game in order to be prepared for the occasional hat trick that saw him  throw his hats on the ice. 

One thing is certain, the mark that Joel left on the Hawks team and community is indelible. 

“It’s a whole community thing. The presence he had in this community and the difference he made in a lot of people’s lives was tremendous,” Kozun said. 

Joel’s distinct methods of celebrating the team’s successes were a part of the game experience in Nipawin. 

“He loved the Hawks. He loved hat tricks, they were a big thing. He would always have his bag of hats, packed and ready for every game. If we were on the road, that bag of hats was beside his chair if he watched the game on Hockey TV. He would throw his hats at the TV,” said his friend and mentor, Emma Galloway who is also the team’s trainer and athletic therapist. 

The next day, Joel would walk into the dressing room and throw hats at whichever player had scored the three goals. 

Joel’s parents, Tim and Lynn Verklan – and his sister Tara – have long been a billet family for Hawks’ players, so Joel formed bonds with the players who shared their home.

He was even nicknamed Goobs by some of his billet brothers who recognized Joel as a happy soul.

A huge part of his time at the rink was picking up the practice pucks from the ice following pre-game warmups. This was a job he took seriously. 

“That was something he took pride in to the point where if he was on holidays and he missed a game, that game didn’t exist because he wasn’t here to pick up pucks,” Galloway said. 

Joel would pack the jerseys for the games, and get everything ready for the team when they had away games and were taking a bus. 

“Those little things he loved to do and it brought him so much joy,” said Galloway. “Joel as a person was very happy, was very vibrant and anybody who came across him, he made their day brighter.” 

If he saw a familiar face in the grocery store, he made sure to yell out hello and to remind them that his name was Joel. 

“He enjoyed the little things in life. I think right now we get carried away with all that’s happening in the world and we get carried away with the bigger things and we forget to stop and enjoy the little things. There’s always a thing that sticks in my mind is be the change you want to see in the world and that was Joel. He brightened everybody’s day and so that is how we want to remember him,” Galloway said.

A big highlight in Joel’s time with the Hawks came in 2018. The season that ended in tragedy for the Humboldt Broncos also ended in a SJHL championship for the Hawks and Joel was very proud of his ring.  

Joel Verklan with his 2018 SJHL championship ring. Photo by Richard Peterson.

Being autistic, Joel played on the Special O teams at LP Miller School until his graduation in 2014 and then on into adulthood. He was a part of as many teams as he could, from bocce ball, golf, curling and of course, floor hockey. 

There was more to Joel than the sports he loved so much, though, and former teacher Ren Lukoni talked of his days at the school and on the Special O team with happiness.

“You can’t help but smile when you think of Joel,” she said. “He’s a huge part of Special O Nipawin and huge part of our community.”

There was a mischievous side to him that she could see in the twinkle in his eyes, she said. 

Lukoni shared a few favourite memories of him, such as the fact that he took birthdays so seriously he made sure to give wishes to others the day before. 

As a fan, he rang his cow bell using both hands – and sometimes his upper body – when the Hawks scored. He also loved to dance and was difficult to get off the dance floor. 

“Dance, dance, dance! Dance by yourself. Dance with others. It don’t matter, just get on that dance floor and don’t come off until the DJ has started packing up. Heck, even then stay out a wee bit longer hoping for one more song,” Lukoni said. 

The Hawks team has ordered stickers with a baseball cap featuring the Nipawin Hawks logo and Joel’s nickname ‘Goobs’. 

They will wear the stickers for the rest of the season and, due to multiple requests from fans, will have them available for purchase at the Hawk’s office (price has not been determined yet). The office hours are from Monday to Thursday, starting at 10:00 am and going until 3:00 pm. 

Any money left from the cost of making the sticker sales will be donated the Nipawin Special O effort. 

Lake Country Co-op is the game sponsor on Feb. 6 and both the business and the Hawks will have a time of remembrance before puck drop at 6:00 pm.