PENTICTON, B.C. — A rookie tournament for four of Canada’s NHL teams appeared in jeopardy a short time ago.
As wildfires ravaged the hillsides of nearby West Kelowna, heavy smoke and accommodation demands for emergency responders forced the cancellation of Penticton’s biggest annual event, Ironman Canada, on Aug. 29.
The Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Vancouver Canucks running their September rookie tournament in the southern Okanagan was in question.
“A couple of friends of mine from Kelowna me sent some pictures and the entire mountain was in flames,” said Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland, who grew up just north of Kelowna in Vernon., B.C.
“For about four or five days there, maybe a week, it was very, very scary.”
Property damage was extensive, but favourable winds and tireless efforts from firefighting crews brought the blazes under control.
NHL prospects played two-touch soccer on the plaza outside Penticton’s South Okanagan Events Centre under clear, blue skies and in late-summer temperatures after convening for their four-day tournament ending Monday.
For Holland, there’s nowhere better to start the NHL season than back home in the Okanagan.
“I think it’s paradise,” he said. “I used to play against Penticton in peewee, bantam, midget, when I was on the travel teams. Vernon, Kelowna, Penticton. I remember, growing up, going up and down, playing all those cities in minor hockey.”
Holland, 67, would have strapped on his goalie gear in Penticton’s old Memorial Arena built in 1951.
The arena still stands behind the South Okanagan Events Centre that opened in 2008 and is home to the BCHL’s Penticton Vees, the Okanagan Hockey Academy and the B.C. Hockey Hall of Fame.
The new arena features two ice sheets and more than enough dressing-room space to house four teams’ worth of NHL hopefuls.
The Young Stars tournament launched in 2010 as a five-team affair that included squads from San Jose and Anaheim, and has taken different forms over the years.
The current Western Canadian configuration ran for several seasons, including Connor McDavid’s noteworthy NHL debut in 2015.
But by 2018, participation had dwindled to just the Canucks, Jets and a pair of university teams.
After the 2019 event was cancelled, Holland restarted conversations among his fellow Western Canadian GMs to get Young Stars back on the calendar.
A true believer in the value of evaluating prospects against their peers, Holland was the architect behind the launch of the NHL’s first-ever prospects tournament in Traverse City, Mich., back in 1997, when he was with the Detroit Red Wings.
“We felt that it was difficult, not fair to young players to evaluate them with veteran players on the ice at main camp,” Holland said.
Other teams followed suit. The pioneering Traverse City event is one of seven prospects tournament underway Saturday involving 29 NHL clubs.
“Next week, all these young kids are going to go to NHL camp and they’re going to be on the ice with established NHL players,” Holland said.
“It’s a way to get them comfortable in their surroundings, play some games. And I think you also build chemistry. We’re hopeful that some of these players that are on our team, down the road, will be Edmonton Oilers. They’re coming — some from junior, some college. Now they’re starting to build some friendships and eventually work their way through (AHL) Bakersfield and ultimately to the NHL.”
With his star-laden roster in Edmonton, Holland isn’t losing sleep over how to market his current team. But events like Young Stars can build excitement for the future as they introduce fans to the next wave of talent on the horizon.
On his flight to the Okanagan, Holland said he met a number of Oilers fans on their way to the tournament to watch the potential future stars in action.
“Fans of these four teams get to watch these games and these players, but in return, we’re playing in a world-class facility,” Holland said.
“Penticton is a special part of Canada. We get to play some games on a great rink and in a great part of the world, and so I think it’s a win-win.”
As summer slides into shoulder season, those fans and the teams also offer a tidy boost to the local economy. But for all the benefits, mounting these events can be a challenge.
Time and travel constraints typically limit game action to a straight round-robin format — only Traverse City crowns a champion.
In Penticton, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the Young Stars relaunch from 2020 to 2022, and this summer’s wildfires served as another reminder that outside forces are always at play.
New Canucks captain Quinn Hughes and team president Jim Rutherford visited the West Kelowna Fire Hall on Friday to meet with firefighters and present a cheque to aid wildfire relief.
Proceeds from this year’s limited edition Young Stars Classic T-shirt will also be directed toward the cause.
At the SOEC, the Oilers kicked off the tournament with a 3-1 win over the Jets before the Canucks beat the Flames 7-1.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 16, 2023.
Carol Schram, The Canadian Press