The Niagara-on-the-Lake minor hockey community is mourning the loss of former club president James Berg, who passed away late last week.
Current NOTL Minor Hockey Club vice-president Peter Flynn says it’s impossible to overestimate how important the 53-year-old was to the organization.
In 2010, Flynn says he and James became members of the club’s executive at a time when the organization had sunk into financial disarray.
According to the club’s constitution, one custodial member of each family registered with NOTL Hockey receives one vote at membership meetings.
“We flooded the room that night (of the annual general meeting),” Flynn recalls, “and we were able to get those (board members) out. James became secretary, then, a year later (summer, 2011) I talked James into putting his name in as president because as secretary, he knew everything that was going on with the club.”
Flynn says the first order of business under Berg’s presidency was to dig out of the financial morass, and then came the reorganization of the AAA hockey organizations in the Niagara Region.
“The OMHA (Ontario Minor Hockey Association) wanted to have two zones for AAA,” Flynn says, “one run out of St. Catharines, and one in Niagara Falls. They wanted us and Fort Erie to join with Niagara Falls, but they wanted to control the board. We went to meetings with them for two years before we decided to go elsewhere for AAA.”
In a Facebook post on the NOTL 4 All page Sunday, Flynn credited Berg for his years of work to save hockey in NOTL, making the town a better place in which to live. A number of tributes poured in from other members of the community.
“It’s heartfelt to read them,” says James’ wife Carolyn Berg. “There were so many people he impacted. We have friends who visit us regularly from out of town. We would go for walks, and we’d run into people and James would always stop and talk. They joked that he was the unofficial mayor of the town.”
Carolyn and James met as students at Niagara District Secondary School. James was a year ahead of her, and she remembers him being in one of her classes. But the quiet student didn’t speak much to her until the day he called to invite her to his Grade 13 prom. They’ve been together ever since.
Following high school, James spent a year at the University of Guelph, then moved on to Brock to take some business courses. He left Brock to begin a commercial painting business with a friend, also taking on some large-scale fence installations with Ontario Power Generation.
From there, he moved into real estate, then decided to return to school to earn a designation to become a purchaser. He caught on with Bosch Rexroth in Welland as purchasing agent, and then left to take on the role of quartermaster with the Niagara Regional Police Services a few years ago.
“He was involved in the building committees for both new detachments (in Niagara Falls and St. Catharines),” remembers Carolyn. “They were big projects, and he won some sort of recognition award.”
In fact, James received a Chief of Police Commendation in 2017. According to Chief Bryan McCulloch, it was for “his role in the monumental task of coordinating the furniture, equipment procurement and movement into the new headquarters while ensuring critical police operations were maintained.”
The youngest of five children who grew up on Four Mile Creek Road, James was not an athlete and, according to his brother Brian, he never set foot on an ice rink or played any ball.
That may have had something to do with his diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease at age 16. James underwent surgery for the malady twice, most recently this past year.
“He started with hockey when his kids started playing,” Brian says. “He was a trainer at times, as well as his involvement on the board. He was really close to his kids. He coached them along in sports, gave them constructive criticism, always in a kindly manner, and he was very generous with his time.”
In 2018-2019, Berg served as the Bantam Rep team’s trainer under head coach Dave Rotella. In a season in which the team had a record of 2-30-3, Rotella says Berg always stayed positive.
“He’s probably the whole reason I wanted to coach there,” the Niagara Falls resident says. “He wasn’t just our trainer, he was my right-hand guy. He kept me sane. We got along so well. He was always calm, always positive. Everyone liked him, and the kids felt comfortable around him.”
Rotella says despite the fact Berg never stepped onto the ice during their time working together, he knew the game extremely well. He also admired Berg’s dedication to his family.
“He was a great father, and they’re just a great family,” says Rotella. “Three wonderful kids. I think that aspect came out in his coaching.”
James loved to cook and bake, says Carolyn, and he willingly took on multiple housing renovations over the years.
“We built our first two homes, too,” she adds, “and he managed both of those builds. The latest thing he did was an outdoor kitchen this past summer. And we did a major reno at his dad’s cottage (in South River, near Algonquin Park), and he spearheaded that one, too.”
Family vacations were a regular occurrence, many of them taking place at South River, where they enjoyed boating and water-skiing. Carolyn says his family was the most important thing in her husband’s life, and they all loved to travel together.
James was active and seemingly healthy when he came home from work last week complaining of stomach and back pain. He passed away at home just a couple of hours later.
“He did so much for the community,” Flynn added. “Anyone who encountered James Berg always said great things about him. He did it all in such a silent way.”
As of press time there had yet to be a determination as to the cause of James’ death. Besides his wife Carolyn, he leaves behind his three children, Mackenzie (22), Madison (20) and Mitchell (17), as well as his father Henry, four siblings, and a number of nieces and nephews.