Garry Arthur Brooks was born in Sussex, N.B., a dairy town northeast of Saint John, on April 17, 1945, to Emery, a serviceman, and Ruby, a homemaker. A middle child, he enjoyed helping others even as a boy: he shovelled his teacher’s walkway after blizzards and, when neighbours holidayed, cared for their milk cows. But when Emery’s job with the Dominion Stores supermarket chain brought the family to Saint John, 12-year-old Garry tired of school, preferring to count the Irving Oil trucks as they lurched past his classroom window and to play hockey with friends (Garry manned the goal). Among the girls who watched their games and dated the players—Garry, ever the helper, taught many of them to drive—was Heather Bingham, daughter of the local grocer. “He’s always been awfully really nice to people,” she says. “That stuck out.”
At 17—indeed, as soon as he could, so much did he dislike school—he enlisted, becoming an infantryman in the Black Watch Royal Highland Regiment. Army life took him to CFB Gagetown, then to Germany. On his return, he asked Heather out. Seeing a different suitor at the time, she declined, but Garry was persistent. She discovered his preferred pastime only after marriage: “He loved to work,” she says. On off days he took jobs mowing lawns, laying sod and—his real passion beyond the American Hockey League—working machines. In 1967, he was travelling with the Canadian Forces Centennial Tattoo when Heather bore a son, Darren. Yet his military service was not all pageantry: there were peacekeeping tours in Cyprus and, in 1970, time in Montreal during the FLQ crisis. “He was,” says Heather, “a trained killer.”
By the late ’70s, Garry was a sergeant and ready for a change. An ad for a grocery business in tiny Fredericton Junction, N.B., became his out. At A.W. Robinson General Store, customers could choose from rubber boots, TV sets, nails from round wooden crates, chamber pots and pickled corn beef (deliveries upon request). Garry learned to wield the long knives for butchering beef and ground out sausages. After hours, he butchered moose and bear for friends. The work came naturally, in large part due to his gregarious nature. “He had a paint can he used to sit on and he’d read the newspaper and have a cigarette and people would come by and talk,” says Darren. Villagers enjoyed the way he wore bedroom slippers to the bank, his good-natured teasing and his famous “haw, haw, haw” guffaw.
He began a third career in the ’90s, buying an old loader and, later, a prehistoric dozer, backhoe and a dump truck. With the founding of Garry Brooks Construction Ltd., he gave the store to Darren, freeing him to haul sand and gravel, fill holes and, in winter, plow the roads. At one stop, he delighted in greeting a resident the same way each day: “Hi, little old lady,” he’d say. “I could have punched him,” says the woman. Yet she adored him; so did everyone. It was in winter that he found his real life’s work: maintaining an outdoor rink that his two grandchildren—along with all the other village kids—depended on for playing hockey. He scraped the ice, flooded it, often keeping at it all night. “I went down at midnight and got home at a quarter after four,” he told the Daily Gleaner of a typical evening. “I don’t mind doing that for the kids.” People called him the Ice Man.
His work on the rink, which he had a knack for hardening even on the warmest days, led to his being named, in 2007, RBC Local Hockey Leader for New Brunswick, an award recognizing hockey volunteers that includes $10,000 for equipment—Garry’s purse bought hockey jerseys—and recognition at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. Allowed to submit a token for permanent display there, he arranged for the kids of the local minor hockey league to sign a photograph: Garry flooding the rink, the jug used to finish the corners in his hand. “He said that every kid got to have their name in the Hockey Hall of Fame,” says Valerie Webb, who nominated Garry. So well-used did his outdoor rink become that Fredericton Junction began work on an indoor facility; though it would make Garry’s contributions obsolete, villagers envisioned him on a Zamboni. The new rink project allowed him to marry his two loves—hockey and machinery—and he soon set about donating labour and equipment, often leaving paid contracts unfinished to lend a quick hand.
Garry was on one such job on June 11 when, while unloading his bulldozer from a float, the machine slipped, tipped, and threw him from the cabin, crushing him. At his funeral, the children of the minor hockey league lined the streets of Fredericton Junction in the jerseys Garry’s devotion paid for.