Anyone who’s ever played a game of pickup hockey on an outdoor rink knows there’s nothing quite like it. The solid, natural feel of the ice surface, the rush of the cold winter air on your face; it’s a feeling that never gets old for those who love the game of hockey. Even though pickup games aren’t officiated and are just for fun, there’s just something special about them.
Now imagine taking that unique feeling of playing Canada’s national pastime outdoors and add referees, organized teams, coaches, heated benches and top it all off with a retro style that brings players (or more likely their parents) back to the glory days of Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Patrick Roy.
That’s the idea behind Al Sim’s annual Tommy Gun’s Outdoor Winter Classic (OWC), a tournament for Midget B teams which is set to get underway at Bower Community Rinks at the end of the month.
“I wanted to do something that’s unique for that age group. We lose so many kids when they’re 14-years-old in Red Deer Minor Hockey just because of jobs and school and school sports and girlfriends and everything else,” said Sim, a Red Deer Minor Hockey parent who created the OWC seven years ago as a way to give Midget B hockey players a unique experience to look back on after their minor hockey days are over.
According to Sim, the overall idea was to give Midget B hockey players — most of who are probably in their final three seasons of minor hockey — a reason to continue playing the sport they love.
“That’s what happened now. These kids — if they’re in that hockey stream that they’re in — they’re gung-ho and they want to continue playing just so they can play in the Winter Classic.”
Every detail of the festival-like event is created specifically to give every player an NHL experience, from the jerseys the teams wear right down to the national anthems that are sung before each game.
To start, each of the eight teams that participates in the tournament gets a set of sponsored jerseys based on a theme which changes from year to year and which the players get to keep at the end of the weekend.
For example, this year’s theme is teams from the now-defunct World Hockey Association, so teams will don the colours of the old Alberta Oilers, Calgary Cowboys and Indianapolis Racers.
“Some teams whose jerseys people have probably never seen,” Sim said.
Each team is also provided with their own dressing room to use over the course of the three-day tourney.
“I hear that from a lot of buddies and friends in our organization who just say hey, no matter what they can’t wait for two or three years down the road when they can play in the Winter Classic when they can have the jerseys and basically act as a pro for the weekend,” Sim said.
In addition to the action on the ice, the OWC also boasts a number of off-ice activities such as a huge fire pit to allow guests to stay warm, raffle and silent auction tables and live entertainment.
There is also a mini Summit Series which is played between local Novice Rec teams throughout the tournament.
Taking all of that into consideration, it’s probably not surprising the tournament has become hugely popular for minor hockey teams not just in Central Alberta, but all over Canada.
“We have a waiting list of probably 40 teams per year,” Sim said, adding this year they have teams coming from as far away as Yellowknife and Melita, Manitoba to participate.
Needless to say, putting on the event of that scale takes a lot hard work and dedication from parents and volunteers.
“We couldn’t do it without the gracious help of the parents of the Red Deer Midget B teams,” Sim said, adding he wants to thank all of the sponsors and volunteers who help set up, haul and store all of the equipment that is needed to put on an event of that scale; from heaters to dressing rooms and lights.
Now, as he prepares for the start of the seventh iteration of the tournament, Sim said he’s proud of what the event has become.
“When I see kids now that are 24 or 25-years-old, the first kids that ran through it and you see them wearing their jerseys at the outdoor rink or you see them at the ski hill. It’s pretty neat to see them. They’re hung up in their rooms. They’re a keepsake and that’s the idea is that when they’re 40 they can look back and talk about the most fun they ever had playing minor hockey was in Red Deer at the Winter Classic.”
The Tommy Gun’s Outdoor Winter Classic begins Jan. 27th and runs through Jan. 29th at the Bower Community Rinks.