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Life, Death, and Future Life of the Canucks Rookie Tournament

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No muss, no fuss, with Covid factors lingering, the Vancouver Canucks are cutting-to-the-chase with the big club’s training camp taking place at the Abbotsford Centre between September 22nd and 25th. Then exhibition games, then off we go into the regular season. The delightful and productive Rookie “Young Stars” Tournament  in Penticton seems like a distant memory. Last held in 2018, it’s existence not simply a victim of the pandemic.

“Calgary and Edmonton, to my understanding, wanted to move the tournament around because it appeared to be so pro-Vancouver,” said long-time hockey and league media executive and Penticton native John Shannon, “and it became a bit of a political hockey puck. Which in the end, looking back, I think everyone realized that was a mistake and now people are looking forward to returning to it.”

And why wouldn’t you. What’s wrong with pulling together the prospects, the executives, the scouts, the support staffs and the media from the Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and of course the Vancouver Canucks? Nothing.

A decade ago, the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks participated when it was a 5-team tourney. Cam Fowler, Nick Bonino, and Kyle Palmieri were on the 2010 Ducks roster in the tournament’s first year. Others to have graced this South Okanagan stage along the way; Brock Boeser, Elias Pettersson, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Mark Scheifele, and Johnny Gaudreau.

Since the inaugural tourney, the event has been victim to fits and starts. One lock-out, a Flames trip to China, and other logistics factoring into inconsistent participation along the way. In 2018, as an alternative, the Flames and Oilers took their pucks and opted to face-off mano-y-mano with a mini-exhibition schedule in Red Deer. The Canucks and Jets prospects were joined by two university teams. In 2019 the Jets opted for an Ontario alternative and the event was cancelled. Too bad, so sad, for Penticton.

“The weather is beautiful, there’s lots of opportunity for socializing, they have a state-of-the-art arena, and a great chance, really, to see some of the guys who may or may not make the team right away, but to see the top prospects of the four organizations,” Shannon added.

Cooler heads began to prevail. The tournament was actually back on the books for last year, set to start September 11th. Then Covid ruined it; the same culprit in this year’s cancellation. Calgary GM Brad Treliving, another who hails from Penticton, indicated the kibosh was put on any hopes for this year’s tournament a couple of months ago.

Meanwhile, although smaller in scope, down from its usual eight teams to five, the Detroit Red Wings announced Friday that they will be holding their rookie camp and tournament in Traverse City, Michigan, starting September 16th along the shores of the Grand Traverse Bay. At least they’re planning on it. The announcement included the good old “subject to change” disclaimer. It’s the tournament, started in 1998, that grew to eight teams in 2006, that Penticton is patterned after, and offers dramatic similarities.

Take a lovely small to mid-sized city on a lake, with a lot of top quality golf courses in the neighbourhood, all of the casual dining and drinking accoutrements hockey people enjoy, quiet organizational meeting places, and breezy September weather. For the media, it’s a melting pot of scouts, general managers and prospects in an approachable atmosphere.

In the halcyon days from about 2009 to 2014, before it became “a thing”, myself and about three other media members had the run of the place in “TC”. Craig Custance, Julie Robenhymer, and Mike Morreale come to mind. At the time, Red Wings General Manager Kenny Holland used to invite the four of us into his makeshift suite in the corner of the rink to pick through the lunch and dinner buffets with his scouts. It was that friendly and casual. It’s changed. Now there’s security, big crowds watching the games on the two sheets, and it’s more difficult to navigate to hockey people through the noise. What hasn’t changed, the impact the tournament has had on the players and the scouts.

What eventual Calder Trophy winning rookie Jeff Skinner of the Hurricanes told Morreale for his NHL.com article in 2014 has been repeated by future stars and superstars time and time again.“The tournament was a great experience,” Skinner said. “It’s a young guy’s first taste of the next level. I just wanted to be one of those guys that management was looking at as a potential player. It helped me prepare for the main camp and it gave me game experience I needed.”

For the players, it’s a high pressure, post-draft environment amid their high-end peers. I’ve seen Ryan Murphy (Carolina, 12th overall, 2011) try to do way too much, Ryan Johansen (Columbus, 4th overall, 2010) show some attitude, and Michael Del Zotto (New York Rangers, 20th overall, 2008) dominate and be MVP of the tournament. There’s a dozen prominent storylines every year, and the same thing could be said for Penticton. That, and the simple joy of hockey, are reasons to look forward to 2022.

“Before the winter sets in,” Shannon reflected, “Before the long arduous hockey season sets in, it’s a combination of getting a look at the prospects, and having one true hockey celebration after a long summer of drafts and scouting and getting ready for the regular season.”

 

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