'It's their Stanley Cup'
For kids who don't travel to out-of-town games and tourneys to play competitive hockey, the Walter Gretzky Hockey Tournament is a big, big deal.
"It's their Stanley Cup," says Kevin Murray, the general manager of the Brantford Minor Hockey Association, about the teams that come from all over Ontario for the annual event at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre.
"This is all house league or recreational hockey, so, for some of these kids, it may be the only tournament they ever come to in their minor hockey career."
That doesn't make it any less competitive though, Murray emphasizes. The 110 teams that are part of the event fought hard over the weekend to get into the semi-finals and try to claim the top prizes.
Players came from Windsor to Ottawa with multiple teams from the Sudbury area.
The draw of Brantford is a well-run tourney at a first-class facility that caters to the schedules of travelling families and, like a cherry on top of the ice cream sundae, the chance to meet the tournament's namesake, Walter Gretzky himself.
"Walter is a very big draw," Murray says. "He's important to the kids and the parents and people always tell us that."
There's a line-up of old and young waiting to see Gretzky at his spot just outside the Brantford Hockey Hall of Fame.
At these tournaments, he puts in hours of autograph signing and posing for photos, working to ensure every fan leaves happy.
"I'm not a hockey player. I'm not an ex-hockey player. I'm the father of a hockey player and look at this line-up! It's unbelievable."
The association ensures someone is with Gretzky, wrangling the line of fans and pulling him from his spot for him to take needed breaks.
Last year, Wenda Render brought her son Kyler to the tournament from their home in Kemptville and was thrilled when she pulled up to the sports complex and was told Gretzky was inside, signing autographs.
"I threw the car in park and ran in. I didn't care if I missed the hockey game because I wanted to see Walter Gretzky."
Render got another shot with the hockey patriarch this year and said she loves the fact that her hockey idol has his own parking spot at the complex.
And the giant statue of Wayne Gretzky outside is also a great draw in her eyes.
Kyler's Kemptville team had group and individual photos taken by the statue and values them more than the traditional on-ice shots that players normally get at the end of the year.
Aside from the excitement of travelling to a new venue as a group, the tournament also offers an important chance for house league teams to play other teams they don't normally meet throughout the year.
Hockey dad James McGill from Powassan, near North Bay, watched with a grin as his 16-year-old son David slid down the ice on a break-away and scored a goal.
"Why wouldn't we want to come here?" he asked.
"It's a well-run tourney where you can spend the weekend without worrying, a nice city where everyone is friends and decent facilities where, last year, my other kids went swimming."
And, again, there's Walter Gretzky.
"Last year David and I met and spoke with Walter and it was a real highlight for us. He's an iconic Canadian and it was great for our family to see how humble a guy he is."
Add in the lessons of hockey - teamwork, how to lose after working hard, getting along with others - and, McGill says, it's no wonder that his other four kids are also involved in minor hockey.
"It's hard to teach all those lessons to someone who's sitting in front of a computer."
This tournament and the Wayne Gretzky Hockey Tournament that ran last week are the local hockey association's two biggest fundraisers, pushing the organizers to eat, sleep and breath the game for several weeks.
"It's my job," said Murray, "but there are volunteers who are here for hours and hours. It's taxing on all of us. We're ready for a long winter's nap."
A few years ago, the tourney had only about 70 teams each year but, at 110 teams, it's now at the maximum possible, Murray said.
Several local teams made the semi-finals over the weekend, including AtoMc Sutton Realty, Smiles in Motion, Itech, Scotia Bank, Bialas Printing and Scissors Over Comb.