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Vernon makes history: 50 years of featuring tomorrow’s hockey stars

50th anniversary Coca Cola Winter Carnival Classic Peewee hockey tourney goes Feb. 9-12 at KTPN
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Vernon Watkin Motors Mustangs forward Jeffrey Curtis gets the puck up and over the shoulder of Vancouver Thunderbirds goalie Ethan Ma, but also over the net, during the opening game of the 48th annual Vernon Winter Carnival Coca Cola Classic Pee Wee Hockey Tournament Thursday, Feb. 7, 2019 at Kal Tire Place North. The 50th anniversary tournament, unable to be played for two years due to the pandemic, is slated for Feb. 9-12. (Morning Star - file photo)

Kevin Mitchell

Special to The Morning Star

From the early years of Ray Allison, Gord Kluzak, Barry Pederson, Doug Bodger and Greg Adams to the later years of Brent Gilchrist, Jeff Finley, Richard Matvichuk, Matt Higgins, Brad Larsen, Morgan Rielly, Josh Morrisey, Mathew Barzal and Jason Podollan, the Vernon Pee Wee Invitational Coca-Cola Hockey Tournament has always held up its theme of The Stars of Tomorrow are Here Today.

Now entering its 50th year, the eight-team event again expects to showcase some of the best 13-year-olds in the land in a tourney which has featured teams from Barrie, Ont. to California and Alaska. The host Vernon Watkin Motors Mustangs has won nine championships, while Winnipeg follows with four. Cowichan Valley and Calgary have three apiece.

Keith Green, current tourney committee chairman and pushing towards 20 years on the board, said making it to 50 had to be a sure thing. It hasn’t been held since 2020 due to the pandemic.

“Our committee members have been chomping at the bit to make sure we meet this milestone. Fifty years of committee members that put all that time in to make this a great tournament, it was vitally important we pull this one off and try to make it the best tournament to date,” said Green. “Obviously we had some challenges moving venues and of course COVID took two years away from the tournament and we’re looking to be stronger and better than ever and sometimes you have to adapt.”

Celebrating year 50 along with the Mustangs are B.C.’s Cranbrook Bucks, Chilliwack Bruins and North Delta Sun Devils, Alberta’s Okotoks Oilers, St. Albert Raiders, and Leduc Roughnecks, and representing the U.S.A., the Wenatchee Wild. The tourney goes Feb. 9-12 at Kal Tire Place North.

Green said teams will be housed at the Premier Best Western instead of the Vernon Lodge due to priority changes at the Lodge.

“The Premier Best Western has bent over backwards for us,” he said. “It’s a good fit. It’s not perfect. We’re going from 450 to 200 for our dance (featuring the Shawn Lightfoot Band).”

The founding tournament committee, all directors with minor hockey, included Len Miller, Chum Kaneda, Al Madden, Jack Boutillier, Frank Flasch, Les York, Ed O’Brien and Doug Bulwer. It was Madden who suggested that Vernon hold a tournament during its annual Winter Carnival since Quebec was doing such.

The inaugural tournament, in 1972, saw the Saanich Braves take the Amy Myles Memorial A title, 9-3 over West Vancouver’s Hollyburn Winter Club. Saanich was led by superstar brothers Gary and Murray Slezak and Robert Clavette.

Teams billeted in the early years, later staying at the Vernon Lodge, where a complimentary banquet was held each Saturday night featuring Hockey Hall of Famer Babe Pratt as keynote speaker for the first 10 years and later Gilchrist.

“We billeted Murray Slezak and Rob Clavette, who were probably the two most dynamic players in the tournament,” said Kevin Mitchell, who spent 18 years as a director. “They were great kids and I followed their careers with the Nanaimo Clippers and Victoria Cougars where they also succeeded.”

Vernon’s team in year two, coached by Walt Trentini, had a winning roster of Rex Slizak, George Crookshank, Earl Sophonow, Earl Smith, Glen Fester, Gordie Howard, Rod Trentini, Scott Madden, Dave Fish, Jay Mondin, Lester Creelman, Fabian Alexis, Darcy Anderson, Jed Sparrow, Tony Mahood and Chris Grant.

The Mustangs stopped Saanich 4-2 in overtime in the A final.

“Gordie Howard was our sniper,” recalls defenceman Fester, a tournament director and North Dakota Fighting Sioux grad. “I fed him with a pass up the middle and he broke through the defence to score an important goal in that game. I believe Rex Slizak was our goalie.”

Jed Sparrow, a longtime director, was also on that championship team and maybe part of the only father-son winning combination since his son, Colton, was on the 2006 double overtime win over Alaska. Jed coached Vernon alongside Pat Field in 2005.

“We went into overtime after Lester Creelman had a penalty shot in the third period and the goalie stopped it. That was back when you couldn’t walk around Civic Arena and they figured there were 2,000 fans.”

Jed said Creelman was the Mustangs’ No. 1 sniper and gave major props to Slizak, Trentini, Fester and Howard.

“I loved that tournament; it was the greatest thing I ever played in. It was a lot of fun. My wife (Chris) took my trophy and put both (Colton) our names on it.”

Sparrow has also enjoyed working with his older brother Jim, who has served close to 25 years as a director. Chris has kept it in the family by running 50-50 sales for several years.

Hubie Petersen was behind the bench of the 1980 team that stopped St. Albert 6-3 in the A final. That Vernon team included four players selected in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft - Gilchrist, Finley, Bruce Major and Jay Stark.

Garry Pruden, among the most respected committee members with 30 years experience, is jacked about finally getting year 50 in after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. A social for current and past directors was held at the Premier Western Hotel to hype this year’s tournament.

“It was really nice to see some of the committee members attend,” said the dean of directors. “We’ve always had a fantastic group of committee members over all the years, people who did so much to maintain the integrity and success of such a great tournament.”

Pruden, who is in charge of finances, is high on the tournament roster.

“This is 50 and we’re extremely happy with the teams that are coming. We’re excited about what’s going to happen in the tournament, which is always great and as everybody knows, the past history includes lots of past NHLers.”

A major tournament highlight came in 1993 when Vernon iced the Prince George Cougars 6-3 in the A final before 1,200 raucous fans. The game was aired on CJIB Radio with (Pistol) Pete McIntyre calling the play by play and Mitchell providing the colour.

The tournament committee has given out thousands of dollars in scholarships and to other organizations in need. Directors Charlie Briskham and Clark Inglis led a huge $10,000 donation for a new time clock at Kal Tire Place.

The Rienie Holland Memorial Award for Best Volunteer, the Ernie Kowal Memorial Award for Best Coach and the Dan Oxnard Memorial Award for most Sportsmanlike Team are all given out annually.

All teams get a private dressing room and five regulation games. The Mustangs get rock star status by riding on the float in the annual Vernon Winter Carnival Parade.

Kevin Mitchell is the retired sports editor of the Morning Star

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