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.
Its 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 arent a lot of folks who come to mind that have tons of money, but everybody pitches in and helps out their neighbor, and youre 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. Its 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. its not a big operation like you might imagine, he says. Outside of the winter when were all gone playing hockey, its 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 wasnt unusual for the boys to find themselves in the saw mill before school, then back at their chores after supper.
Its 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. Its a small operation, so theres not much mechanization. Its a lot of grunt labor, thats for sure.
Considering the dynamics of six boys under the same roof, things werent 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 couldnt 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, Id 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. Wed 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 Im 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 wasnt 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 youre from one small town and you go to the next, youre going to tangle, so doing it on the ice wasnt really that big a deal.
To this day, Vandermeer doesnt hesitate to drop the gloves, which has made him a fan favorite wherever hes played. You get 10,000 people yelling and screaming and its a pretty good feeling as long as youre giving more than youre taking, he says.
Even though hes played over 500 games in the minor leagues and fought more times than he can remember, Vandermeer still cant believe hes getting paid for what he loves doing. Its the best darn life in the world I wouldnt trade it for anything.
Besides, he knows the alternative. The saw mill is still turning and its 20 degrees below back home, so this looks pretty good to me, he says. I think Ill 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. Id like to help some other guys figure out the things that Ive 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 Im 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 AHLs Phantoms, while Peter played with Joe and Dan in Richmond in the East Coast Hockey League back in 1999-2000. Thats 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 youre going to get tangled up with some guys. Thats just the way it is.