SWEET SAVE - Goaltender Gord Bennett of the Spruce Grove Penguins stopped a shot by Zac Powell of the Red Deer Canucks during the Tommy Gun’s Winter Classic at the Bower Community Rinks on Saturday. The annual outdoor tournament wrapped up its sixth successful year last weekend.

Iconic outdoor hockey tournament a success

Pond hockey is an enduring tradition of Canadian winters.

Those Saturday morning pickup games on the outdoor rink can create memories that last a lifetime for many Canadians young and old. But what would happen if someone were to take that concept to a whole new level?

“I was driving on the highway and just started thinking of some ideas and my thoughts turned to the NHL Winter Classic. I just said ‘let’s do that here in town,’” said Al Sim, whose Tommy Gun’s Outdoor Winter Classic wrapped up its sixth successful tournament this past weekend.

The outdoor Midget B hockey tournament, he said, was started in order to give some lower level midget hockey players a chance to finish their minor hockey careers on a high note.

“These kids, they’re playing at the Midget B level, typically they don’t get all the nice things or the accolades that the Midget AAs or AAAs get, so I wanted to create a cool environment and give these kids something that they’ll talk about for the rest of their lives.”

Last weekend’s tournament, which ran from Friday through Sunday at the Bower Community Rinks, featured eight teams, four from Red Deer and four from around the province.

As in previous Winter Classics, the teams were all decked out in old style NHL jerseys, which this year were themed around the late 1980s.

“For the kids that come, we tell them to leave their minor hockey jerseys and socks at home and each of these sets of uniforms are sponsored. They put the names on the back of the jerseys and then the kids get to keep them at the end of the tournament,” Sim said of the retro-style that the event sports.

“Every year we kind of keep it under wraps, what our theme is and when the kids open their dressing room they’re just in awe. It’s funny because every dressing room door that gets opened, every kid and every manager thinks they’ve got the best jersey for the tournament.”

This year’s event featured the Red Deer Devils, Red Deer Kings, Foremost Northstars and Kneehill Capitals in the East and the Red Deer Canucks, Red Deer Flyers, Calgary Sabers and Spruce Grove Penguins in the West.

“It was really tight, actually. The competition was really close. We had lots of ties and one goal games, there was only one that was a little bit of a bigger score. Other than that it could have been anybody’s tournament,” Sim said.

In the end, though, it was the Spruce Grove Penguins that came out on top, winning the OWC championship.

In addition to the Midget hockey, the festival-like event also features some fun Novice level games, that come in the form of the 1972 Canada Cup.

“It was our third year doing the Summit Series, so we take the Team Canada and the Russian CCCP Cold War-era jerseys and we put the 1987 rosters, the numbers and names, on the back of the jerseys. These kids when they come play, they’re the Novice rec division of Red Deer Minor Hockey, each team gets a 45 minute game and one team represents Canada, the other team represents Russia and they have the Summit Series,” Sim said.

The lengths that Sim and the rest of the organizers go to in order to make the experience as authentic as possible are really impressive. For example, anthem singer Brett LaBrosse will only sing the national anthems of the teams that are playing.

“If it’s a U.S. team playing a Canadian team he’ll do both and if it’s just the U.S. playing then that only gets sung. Flags are flying and it’s awesome,” Sim said, adding LaBrosse has even learned the Russian anthem for the Summit Series games.

It’s a pretty special event and, according to Sim, it has always been really well received by the teams that play in it.

“It’s our version of the NHL to these kids and once their bus or their vehicle rolls in they see that it’s just an NHL experience. It’s cool.”

Sim added he wanted to thank the tournament’s sponsors and volunteers for all of their support in putting together the unique event.

“It’s almost like a city within a city. It’s this festival that we created.”

zcormier@reddeerexpress.com