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12/31/2004 7:31 AM - Growing up the oldest of six boys and working in the family saw mill made pretty strong timber out of Griffins tough guy Peter Vandermeer

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Peter Vandermeer grew up on the eastern slopes of the Canadian Rockies, an unspoiled part of the country, where people work hard and play hard and learn to stick together.

“It’s an incredible place,” says Vandermeer, a nine-year pro who has built a tough-as-nails reputation that counts him as, pound-for-pound, one of the toughest guys in the American Hockey League.

“Back home there aren’t a lot of folks who come to mind that have tons of money, but everybody pitches in and helps out their neighbor, and you’re expected to do the same.”

Vandermeer grew up in Caroline, Alberta, a small town of 300 people, in the midst of forests and farms and a rather thriving oil industry. Oil rigs and cattle dot the landscape. “It’s like Texas of Canada,” he says.

His family sold their farm when he was 10 years old, but they ran a modest saw mill operation which is still running today. “it’s not a big operation like you might imagine,” he says. “Outside of the winter when we’re all gone playing hockey, it’s manned by family.”

Bob and Maureen raised their six boys – Peter, Joe, Dan, Jim, Bill and Ted – to learn the value of manual labor. During peak times, it wasn’t unusual for the boys to find themselves in the saw mill before school, then back at their chores after supper.

It’s a work ethic that every Vandermeer still upholds today.

“You do a lot of hard work: running power saws, packing boards, driving tractors,” he says. “It’s a small operation, so there’s not much mechanization. It’s a lot of grunt labor, that’s for sure.”

Considering the dynamics of six boys under the same roof, things weren’t always so harmonious. Fist fights and brotherly brawling were regular occurrences in the Vandermeer household.

“Every night when we went to bed, somebody was crying or bleeding or both,” he says.

There was only one cardinal rule, and it was that you couldn’t pick on anybody younger – which put Peter at a distinct disadvantage, since he was the oldest of the boys.

“We usually managed to police most things ourselves,” he says. “I tried to get things sorted out, but no matter what happened, I’d always get into trouble for picking on someone smaller.”

Punishment was dished out by both parents, although it was their “old school” father whom the boys most feared. “The old man was the boss – no doubt about it,” he says. “We were all pretty spooked by him.”

Corporal punishment was not discouraged in those days, so the boys would feel the brunt of parental wrath whenever they strayed from the straight and narrow.

“There was a belt, but the hands worked pretty good, too,” Vandermeer says with a grin. “We’d get the wooden spoon across the bottom from mom, until we got older and started laughing.”

In truth, it was the possibility of disciplinary action more than anything else that kept the siblings in line. “I think the fear of the belt did a lot more than the actual belt,” he says. “In my whole life, I think I only got it once or twice, but I’m still scared of my old man.”

Having five brothers was “a great way to grow up,” according to Vandermeer. “It was like you automatically had five best friends. We fought like cats and dogs at home, but when we went to school or anywhere else, if you picked on one of us, you picked on us all.

“It really brought us together. You learned how to work together and how to get things done.”

His father helped foster that spirit of teamwork and camaraderie among the boys. Not only did he flood the backyard to make a big ice rink every winter, he also coached them in youth hockey.

“If you did something wrong, my dad made sure you knew about it,” Vandermeer says. “He could be an intimidating man, but he did it in a way that was very instructional. He was a great guy to teach you about a lot of different things, not just hockey.”

On the ice, Vandermeer applied what he learned at home. Call it frontier justice, if you like, but from the very beginning he wasn’t afraid to take a stand for the other guys on the team. To Vandermeer, teammates were blood brothers.

“When anybody messed with my teammates, that stuff came natural to me,” he says. “When you’re from one small town and you go to the next, you’re going to tangle, so doing it on the ice wasn’t really that big a deal.”

To this day, Vandermeer doesn’t hesitate to drop the gloves, which has made him a fan favorite wherever he’s played. “You get 10,000 people yelling and screaming and it’s a pretty good feeling – as long as you’re giving more than you’re taking,” he says.

Even though he’s played over 500 games in the minor leagues and fought more times than he can remember, Vandermeer still can’t believe he’s getting paid for what he loves doing. “It’s the best darn life in the world – I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Besides, he knows the alternative. “The saw mill is still turning and it’s 20 degrees below back home, so this looks pretty good to me,” he says. “I think I’ll continue doing what I do as long as I can.”

When his playing days are over, Vandermeer would like to coach or scout. “I want to stay in the game somehow,” he says. “I’d like to help some other guys figure out the things that I’ve picked up along the way.”

He feels fortunate to have played professionally for nearly a decade, even if he has yet to step onto NHL ice. “The dream is still there,” he says. “These teams keep signing me to NHL contracts and I keep hoping that one of them will let me play one darn game before I’m done.”

Vandermeer was able to see his brother Jim make his NHL debut with the Philadelphia Flyers a couple of years ago. “We were happy for him because all of us helped get him there – it was a family accomplishment.”

Brother Jim was a teammate in Philadelphia with the AHL’s Phantoms, while Peter played with Joe and Dan in Richmond in the East Coast Hockey League back in 1999-2000. That’s when Vandermeer had 31 goals in 58 games, in spite of being whistled for a whopping 457 penalty minutes.

“The other teams were sending their tough guys after me all of the time, so I could have had a lot more penalty minutes,” he says. “I was trying to stay out of the box, but if push comes to shove, you know you’re going to get tangled up with some guys. That’s just the way it is.”

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