From June 21 to July 14, Meadow Park Sports Centre plays host to the Whistler International All Star Hockey Tournament, a competitive event that draws teams from as far as Alberta, California and Colorado. This year a few players from Japan — Canadians growing up in Japan and Japanese kids playing hockey — will join the fun, creating the possibility that the event could get even more international next year.
Kevin Sopp, who has managed the tournament with his wife Jennifer for 11 years now, said the numbers of participants is down slightly but the tournament remains strong.
"It's a bit of a weird year for us," he said. "We had to cancel one division, 2003, because we didn't have enough teams for the first time in 11 years, but then a lot of the other divisions sold right out.
"It's kind of strange, but at the end of the day we'll only have three or four fewer teams than last year. It's too bad for those kids, but it's the first time it's happened. We're not expecting it to be a regular thing."
Sopp says the soft economy in the U.S. is the main reason, although one team had issues getting passports for players as well.
This year Whistler will be represented by its Midget Rep team, which won both league and playoff banners this year, then went on to place second overall in Tier 3 after losing their final game of the season. Head coach Mike Borrelli put the team back together for the tournament, which runs from June 27 to June 29, with the help of some additional imports.
"We get a few kids from out of town joining the team, some from the island and some from the interior, so it's almost like a select team," said Borrelli. "We're actually going to be able to have two early morning practices on the 24th and 25th, but that's it before the tournament. The ice has been out at Meadow Park for four weeks, so the guys haven't had much in the way of practice time."
The goal, as always, is to win. At the end of May the Winterhawks went 3-0 in the round robin of the Challenge Cup tournament in Vancouver, but ended up losing their semi-final and the bronze medal game. However, Borrelli said the Whistler tournament will be a different story even with a lot of the same teams taking part.
"Most of the teams we've played in the Challenge Cup, with the exception of a couple of teams coming in from the U.S., and there's definitely going to be some stronger kids on the ice, but it's also different from the Challenge Cup in that no junior age kids are eligible to play — it's strictly midget-aged players. So it's a better test for the kids to know exactly where they're at."
The Midget Winterhawks will play 7:30 a.m. and 1:50 p.m. on June 27, 12:15 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. on June 28, with the top teams advancing to the playoffs on Saturday, June 29.
As well, several other Whistler players — particularly at the bantam level — are being recruited by visiting teams that are arriving in Whistler a few players short.
"It's always exciting when the local kids come out and play against some high quality kids," said Sopp.
The event is a significant draw to the resort during the slow season. Sopp says that most teams bring around 17 players to the tournament, and 40 to 55 people including coaches and parents. There are roughly 60 teams this year.
As always, some scouts will also be attendance:
"In the Midget division, we probably have five or six teams represented from the Junior B league in Vancouver, and a few teams are sending prospect kids like the Vancouver Wolfpack," said Sopp. "We have three or four coaches in that league in Midget that want to see the kids firsthand. And in Minor Bantam we have scouts looking at kids for next year's Bantam Draft. There will be scouts from the Victoria Royals, the Calgary Hitmen, and a few other WHL people here for sure."
Sopp says that the teams book between 2,000 and 2,500 room nights in the resort, making a family holiday out of the tournament.
For more on the tournament, visit www.whistlerallstarhockey.com.