Growing up in North Vancouver, Paul Kariya had his fair share of time in Whistler.
However, the 44-year-old hadn't been up in years before coming up to appear as a guest during the Rogers Hometown Hockey broadcast from Whistler Olympic Plaza on Feb. 10.
As part of the festival, the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim's first-ever draft pick signed autographs and took pictures with fans on Feb. 9 and 10 before sitting alongside Hometown Hockey hosts Ron MacLean and Tara Slone ahead of and during the first intermission of the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers contest.
Shortly before his Sunday session, Kariya recalled his first trip to the resort, as an atom player with the North Shore Winter Club, and looked back fondly on a ski trip with his father.
Despite the teeth-chattering cold on the weekend, Kariya took the time to enjoy Whistler Blackcomb both days, even taking part in Fresh Tracks on Sunday.
"Whistler is a special place and I can't believe how much it's grown since my earliest memories up here when I was nine," he said.
After his retirement in 2010, last playing with the St. Louis Blues, Kariya returned to Southern California where he picked up both snowboarding and surfing in earnest.
While it's possible to do both in one day, it's not something Kariya has experienced quite yet.
"That is the goal," he said with a chuckle. "One day, I'll do that. The surfing there is excellent. The snowboarding on the local mountains is fun but it's certainly not Whistler Blackcomb."
Kariya added that each year, he'll return to B.C. to join his family for a ski trip to one of the province's resorts, mixing Big White or Sun Peaks in with trips up here to Whistler.
On the hockey side, much of Kariya's career was spent in emerging markets, as he joined Anaheim for its sophomore season and led them a Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2003, joined the Colorado Avalanche for a season, and then spent two years helping the relatively new Nashville Predators to back-to-back seasons of over 100 points.
"Going into a non-traditional hockey market, I remember my first training camp and seeing the palm trees on the side, coming from Vancouver and the University of Maine prior to that, I definitely had culture shock," he said. "But the fans there are some of the best fans in the NHL and playing in a place like Nashville, (it was voted) as the best sports franchise, period, in North America (by ESPN in 2017). The fans there are incredible. Both of those markets are really non-traditional markets I've enjoyed playing in."
Both those teams have enjoyed success, with Anaheim winning the Stanley Cup in 2007 and Nashville falling to Pittsburgh in the final in 2017 before finishing with the best regular season record last season.
After retiring in 2010 because of post-concussion syndrome, Kariya kept a low profile for several years before his election to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2017 alongside longtime teammate and close friend Teemu Selanne.
"It was something I never expected and I'm very grateful to be recognized like that," he said. "To go in with Teemu, it was a special time for both our families."
Also in town this weekend was goalie Kirk McLean, who also has fond memories of Whistler after backstopping the Vancouver Canucks for over a decade, including to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final in which the upstart Canucks fell in seven games to the New York Rangers.
"It's always great to get up here. This is my first time (coming up) during the winter this year and we got a bit of a cold snap," he said.
Based back in Vancouver after finishing his career with the Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers and the Rangers, McLean explained that as a keen golfer, he's more of a summer visitor, having owned a house in the Nicklaus North neighbourhood, as he was also a member of the namesake course.
During McLean's career, the Canucks held several training camps at Meadow Park Sports Centre, while the resort was also a regular haven for the netminder and fellow teammates during the annual All-Star break.
"It's kind of a luxury to have, living in Vancouver, to have such a beautiful area," said McLean, whose two All-Star Game appearances, in 1990 and 1992, came before the Whistler arena's construction in 1993.
Reflecting on his later career on teams in the southern United States still establishing themselves in their respective marketplaces after playing in a hotbed like Vancouver, McLean said he enjoyed the change of pace.
"It's a different feeling," he said. "They have a hockey community down there.
"The organizations made us feel at home and, as much as they could, created a really good hockey atmosphere."
Organizers hail weekend a success
While there was plenty of excitement with the big-name stars in town, the Hometown Hockey weekend also shone a light on the game's next generation.
Local organizer Steve Neal was thrilled with how the event played out in Whistler Olympic Plaza with entertainment, games and interactive displays alongside the draws of Kariya and McLean.
"I really thought that it exceeded all of our expectations. We had a vision when this opportunity came to us to focus on what we could do to help the community and our first focus was to bring an incredible event that's free for the community that will bring people together," he said. "We wanted to help minor hockey in the Sea to Sky corridor galvanize their efforts together, give them a platform to work together and generate some awareness for their organizations."
Meanwhile, Whistler Minor Hockey Association treasurer Rob Palm said joint fundraising efforts with the Squamish association were successful, as initiatives like a Whistler Cooks-led barbecue and popcorn by donation, as well as a 50-50 draw garnered between $2,500 and $3,000 for the groups to split.
That's in addition to a Scotiabank contribution of $7,500 to each group.
"We probably could have done better if it weren't for the bloody cold," Palm said.
Community hockey spirit was also well on display on Saturday morning after Palm arrived to find that power to the Meadow Park Sports Centre was knocked out, jeopardizing a day of friendly games between the Squamish and Whistler teams. However, BC Hydro managed to fix things quickly and only two games were lost. In all, 28 teams took part and Palm praised the connection between the Whistler and Squamish organizations, which also supplied volunteers for the weekend's events.
"The biggest thing, to me, was that the two organizations worked really well together," he said.
As well, Zero Ceiling received a $15,000 Ted Rogers Community grant as part of the weekend.