AT THE ROYAL BANK CUP: A tale of three cities

Three different venues, three very distinct atmospheres. That has been the lasting impression of my journey with the Vernon Vipers over the past few seasons at the Royal Bank Cup national junior A hockey championships.

It all started with the 2009 run in Victoria where the Vipers were pampered at the ultra-posh Westin Bear Mountain Resort. Their pre-game meals consisted of steak and prime rib roast, cooked by gourmet chefs. I, on the other hand, hunkered down at my brother’s bachelor pad, feasting on Subway and greasy pizza.

After that, it was off to small-town Dauphin, Man. in 2010 to watch the Snakes hoist their second straight RBC Cup.

I easily had the upper hand in food and lodging for this leg of the journey. Each of the town’s hotels were fully booked, and despite having to scramble to find accommodation, it turned out to be a blessing. While the Vipers bedded down in a Super 8 along the highway into town, I was welcomed as a billet into the home of Martin and Michelle Kaminski. They treated me as part of the family and fattened me up with some tasty Ukrainian fare. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried the Kaminski’s beet buns, and their homemade waffles are exquisite.

I have had similar good fortune this year in Camrose as former Morning Star production manager Tanya Pattullo, who now works at the state-of-the-art library at the University of Alberta Augustana campus in town, has opened her home up to me. She and husband Rich, and their two lovely daughters, Brooklyn and Malia, have been gracious hosts and have basically put their house at my disposal.

It has been much the same with the local tournament organizers and Hockey Canada.

Kevin Webster, who oversees Hockey Canada’s RBC Cup operation, and colleagues Jason Larose and Francis Dupont, make sure the media want for nothing. If I need to set up and interview or put in a photo request, it is taken care of.

Kevin Gurr, chairman of the Camrose organizing committee and owner of the local Boston Pizza, says the main priority was to make sure the players got the rock star treatment.

“One of the biggest goals was to make sure we created a great experience for the kids and the teams. They worked so hard to get here. Probably one of the toughest tournaments to get to when you look at starting with 137 teams,” said Gurr, an original investor with the Kodiaks when the franchise began in 1997-98. He currently sits on the Kodiaks’ board of directors.

Vipers’ assistant coach Jason Williamson admitted the Bear Mountain experience in Victoria will be tough to beat – and I can’t really blame him – but he added the Vipers have had nothing but five-star treatment from Hockey Canada, the tournament organizers and an army of 260 volunteers.

“They little things they do – things like the skate driers – that go unnoticed behind the scenes, they make sure every team is taken care of,” he said.

And while Victoria may have boasted the best accommodation, Camrose wins top arena billing, hands down. I have never been inside a facility better suited for junior A hockey than the Edgeworth Centre.

Built in 2007, the rink features bowl seating for 2,500 (plus standing), six luxury boxes and upper-deck seating that wraps around about one third of the rink. The designers also incorporated several minor details – such as bright TV lighting, big screen video wall, running track around the concourse coated with rubberized paint, and steep-angle seating so you feel like you’re on top of the action – that help set it apart from other rinks I’ve visited.

Oh, and the complex also boasts a well-appointed community gym, aquatic centre with outdoor water park for summer, physiotherapy office, health and wellness centre, curling rink and two other sheets of ice.

“Our city had a great vision and went the extra mile when they built it. They didn’t cheap out. And for an event of this size, this is probably the perfect size facility,” beamed Gurr.

Added Williamson: “Definitely the nicest rink we’ve played in in the three Royal Bank Cups we’ve been to. Great crowds for every game. Even when we played an afternoon game on a Monday there was still a decent amount of people there.”

The Kodiaks have obviously drawn the biggest gates, with a tournament high 2,800 fans on opening night against the Vipers. Since then, average attendance has settled to about 2,380, with an projected week-long attendance of 30,000 after Sunday’s final.

A good many of the fans were sporting Viper jerseys, with friends, diehard fans and family flocking to Camrose to watch the Vipers strive for a record third straight title.

Gurr says tournament ticket packages started moving as soon as they became available in September 2009. Season ticket holders had first dibs.

“We had a great uptake on the initial offer and before we knew it we were pushing that 1,500 mark,” he said. “Once the teams were announced we probably sold another 90 packages in the last few days.”

Last but not least, there is the hockey itself. I can’t say the action itself has been as passionate, or emotional, as all those gruelling best-of-seven playoff series these teams battled through to get here, but that’s the nature of a round-robin tournament. You don’t get seven games to get your hate-on for the opposition. And let’s not forget, some of these teams will have played nearly 90 games when the tournament ends today.

However, when you combine the calibre of hockey, the atmosphere of a national event and all the talented players competing in Camrose this week, there is something magical about the RBC. Some of these players may very well go on to become household names in higher leagues. It wouldn’t be the first time.

“There’s a long list of alumni from this event. A lot of them used this game as a stage. Kyle Turris (Phoenix Coyotes) is a good example of that. He was unbelievable in the final game when Burnaby (Express) won in 2006,” said Webster.

Graeme Corbett is a sports reporter for the Vernon Morning Star.