May 12 2014 ISN – Welcome to the Okanagan, where Canada’s national pastime thrives beyond belief.
In the short, three-and-a-half-hour journey from Sicamous to Osoyoos, you’ll encounter the game at every turn. Representing the Western Hockey League, Kootenay International Junior Hockey League, Canadian Sport School Hockey League and British Columbia Hockey League, 12 teams and a litany of potential can be found in the valley, fencing the boroughs with boards, glass and the moxie of an impassioned community.
“Everybody knows everybody, and everybody plays hockey,” Nashville Predators defenceman Shea Weber says of his hometown, which has a population of about 3,000.
The 28-year-old product of Sicamous, B.C., spent many a minor hockey season patrolling the waters – of the frozen sort, mind you – in the Houseboat Capital of Canada.
“We only had about 10 or 12 players on our team every year, so the talent was concentrated. It was the same group of kids every season, too. In a community like that, we all grew up together and played all the time, whether it was outside – on the streets or on an outdoor rink – or indoors at the [Sicamous and District] Rec Centre.
“It seemed like hockey was always one of the main attractions in that area.”
Honestly, it is.
Throngs of developing athletes converge on the valley every summer to participate in the Okanagan Hockey School, a world-renowned program that began in 1963 and now operates in six locations across Canada. In addition, the OHS directs the Okanagan Hockey Academy, which runs year-round in Penticton and is responsible for developing many of the province’s elite, many of whom have gone on to have successful careers in the BCHL, WHL, NCAA and more.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Vernon Vipers owner Dr. Duncan Wray says. “We’re pretty lucky to have such incredible development programs in this area. It’s a unique situation, too, because so many of the players that come through the system and play with us are born, they grow up and develop their game all here, in our very own backyard.”
Literally, in Weber’s case.
Shea’s father, James, a mill worker by day, coached him as a youngster growing up. That booming shot of his didn’t develop itself, after all. Farming it among the many teachings, a quaint, scratch-built training ground, fuelled by the hard work and dedication James demanded.
The target, a collection of puck-battered soup cans bound in the corners of a crummy old net in the Weber family backyard. Repetition was key. It became somewhat of a muster point, a haven for the town’s elite to come develop their game; Cody Franson, Colin Fraser, Kris Beech and other professionals-in-the-making spent countless hours, day and night, pummeling pucks off the humbly crafted plywood playing surface.
Boy, it sure was worth it.
Buoyed by all the extra time and attention spent honing his craft on the proverbial backyard rink, he moved on to play for the hometown Eagles of the KIJHL at the age of 16. In 2001-02, he led his team to a near-perfect record of 43-5-1-1, winning both the Cyclone Taylor Cup provincial title and Keystone Cup as Western Canadian Junior B champions.
The very next season, Weber began his career with the Kelowna Rockets, launching an incredible stretch in which he appeared in three straight Memorial Cups, culminating in the 2004 national championship.
And the rest, they say, is history.
While Fraser was immediately promoted to the WHL, both Franson and Beech decided on the KIJHL, playing alongside Weber with the Sicamous Eagles. And they weren’t the only ones to have discovered this track. Ray Ferraro (Trail Smoke Eaters), Adam Deadmarsh (Beaver Valley Nitehawks), Chuck Kobasew (Osoyoos Heat), Brad Lukowich (Cranbrook Colts) and Steve Passmore (Grand Forks Border Bruins) are just a few of the one-time KIJHL superstars that went on to have successful NHL careers.
For many, the pinnacle of stardom began here, in the hillocks of paradise.
Justin Schultz of the Edmonton Oilers grew up in nearby Westbank (now West Kelowna), not far from the Rockets’ home at Prospera Place in Kelowna. It was there on the left-hand shores of Lake Okanagan where he discovered his true calling, toggling back to the blue-line after years on the wing and even a brief stint between the pipes as a youngster.
Schultz, Weber and thousands of other valley-born athletes grew up playing in the Okanagan Minor Hockey Association, an organization that offers a variety of programs to kids, male and female, of all ages and skill levels.
Once he was old enough, the BCHL became the ducat of choice for the future Oiler, spending parts of three seasons with the Westside Warriors.
“It was a special place to play,” he said. “We didn’t have much in the way of outdoor rinks. But when it did get super chilly – and that usually happened a couple times a year – the lakes were packed. Places like Kelowna, Vernon, Sicamous, Penticton … they’re resort towns, vacationer hot spots in the summertime.
“When the weather cools and we head into the winter months, hockey is the thing to do.”
Forty-five minutes north on Highway 97, it’s more of the same with another BCHL squad. Wray – today, a B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame inductee – has owned the Vipers since 1992, when he left Saskatchewan for the ride of a lifetime. In his 22 years at the helm, he’s beheld the passion of the Okanagan like no other.
“We’re in a small enough community that Vipers games are the premier event to attend in the winter time. Everyone, and I mean everyone, rallies around this team,” Wray said.
Drawing from a population of about 38,000, the Vipers are consistently among the league leaders in attendance, averaging approximately 2,000 fans per game over the past six seasons. Up against the likes of Penticton, West Kelowna, Salmon Arm, Trail and Merritt, it’s an accomplishment Wray is particularly proud of.
That, coupled with the team’s commitment to winning has cemented the Vipers’ status one of the country’s most successful and highly regarded Junior A franchises. In the last two decades, Wray’s club has won seven BCHL championships, six Doyle Cup titles, 12 Interior Division pennants and three regular-season crowns.
Producing a number of NHLers, including Vancouver Canucks forward Mike Santorelli in the process, only adds to the club (and the region’s) many successes.
The biggest source of pride for club ownership has come in their ability to land U.S. college scholarships. In the past 17 years, they’ve had 101 players continue on with their playing careers and secure an education south of the border.
“That’s the goal of every organization at this level, to get our players to that level,” Wray said. “There’s plenty of opportunity for our players to move on, have success there and ultimately become good pros down the road.”
Schultz, 22, is among them, having studied Life Sciences and Communications before being drafted by the Anaheim Ducks and eventually signing with Edmonton. This career path might not have been possible if his journey had begun anywhere else but the Okanagan.
“It’s amazing how many players come through the [BCHL program],” Schultz said. “It’s not like the Okanagan is a particularly big place or anything, but the amount of talent that comes through is pretty incredible. I’m not sure if there’s a better place to develop, when you consider how competitive it is across every level and every league.”
As a whole, the BCHL has had a hand producing the likes of Bob Nystrom, Glenn Anderson, Brett Hull, Cliff Ronning, Mark Recchi, Paul Kariya, Jamie Benn, Duncan Keith and a host of other NHL stars over the years.
The list goes on, and will for years to come with every league in the region. Hockey is as big, or bigger, in the Okanagan as it is anywhere else in Canada.
That’s some kind of passion down in the valley. Remarkable, really.