Whistler has once again been a premier destination for spring hockey teams to wrap up their seasons on a high note thanks to the long-running tournament that's been ongoing at Meadow Park Sports Centre since mid-June.
The RND Napa Auto Parts Whistler International All-Star Hockey Tournament is now in its 19th year with several dozen teams from around B.C. and beyond on the ice.
Games have been running since major bantam players kicked the event off on June 16 and will finish up Monday (July 9) with the major peewee (1999-born players) final.
Tournament director Kevin Sopp said anyone coming out to watch the last few days of play will be treated to some high-calibre hockey.
"The skill level has been really good," Sopp said Friday (June 29).
Sopp said that some of the most exciting hockey of the tournament took place during the midget draw, not only because nearly all games were tightly-contested but also since many players were getting their last chances to make impressions on junior B squads.
"There were six or seven really good teams there and (scouts) can come, take a look, ask questions and get names," said Sopp, noting that more than half of all midget games were ties or one-goal decisions. "We're sort of the last kick at the can for some of these kids to catch someone's eye."
Due to the difficult economy, Sopp said participation from U.S. teams has dropped for this year. In total, this year's tournament features 64 teams, some of which come from Alberta, Yukon, Washington and California.
But for some teams like the B.C. Blackhawks, a collective of top-level minor atom (2002-born) players from around the Lower Mainland, there was never a doubt that a trip to Whistler would be on the schedule again this year.
Although the Blackhawks fell short of defending their title from a year ago, losing in Saturday's (June 30) final to The Misfits, team manager Shane Margetson said that Whistler provides the perfect place for the squad to finish off its spring season.
"It's a great tournament for the family - kind of a wind-up, because we have kids and parents from all different areas and associations, so it's a good way for us all to come together and have fun," said Margetson. "We love Whistler. Some of the guys go golfing, I'll go biking and everyone can do what they want to do. It's a little getaway."
As far as the tournament itself, Margetson said the Blackhawks were impressed by the event once again this year.
"It's a really well-organized tournament, (especially) with the amount of ice and teams they've got to accommodate," he said. "It's got to be tough for them but they do a great job."
Though there are no Whistler teams playing in the tournament, there has been no shortage of local participation as squads arriving in the resort have often turned to Winterhawks players to fill out their rosters.
"Last-minute, kids on other teams will get hurt or have to cancel for some reason, so there have been Whistler kids in just about every division thus far," said Sopp.
Sopp added that with teams arriving in Whistler with dozens of players, coaches and family members each, the tournament continues to be a good draw for the resort during a generally slow period.
"These are the kind of people you want," said Sopp. "One team that's here from Alberta now is here with 80 people and it's not like (the type of people who come) May long weekend."
The minor peewee draw is on the ice today (Thursday, July 5) and will wrap up on Friday. Games begin daily at either 7:30 or 9 a.m. See www.whistlerallstarhockey.com for schedules and up-to-date tournament results.