For the second year running, the Yellowknife Wolfpack peewee development team was in Vernon, B.C., for the annual Vernon Winter Carnival Coca-Cola Classic Tournament, one of the most exclusive tournaments in western Canada. Just eight teams are selected from the dozens that apply.
Yellowknife very nearly won the big prize last year and were the talk of the tournament. They were the talk of the tournament again this year, but for a much different yet equally impressive reason.
The Wolfpack, known as the CR Oilers when they play in town, ended up playing for the tournament’s D event championship against the California Wave based out of Artesia, Calif. Before that story gets told, let’s talk about how the Wolfpack did in the round-robin.
Darren Wicks, the team’s head coach, said they ended up getting the invite based on a letter written by assistant coach Peter Curran.
“Peter wrote up a real nice letter talking about the types of people the kids and coaches are and what type of development we’re trying to do with them,” he said.
Wicks said he got the notice from the organizers that they were accepted this past December and the planning was underway.
The Wolfpack started the round-robin with a win over the Wave before taking on the Edmonton Canadians in their next contest, a game in which Wicks said his team just couldn’t get rolling in.
“We started off well, but we just couldn’t find any sort of groove,” he said.
They ended up on the wrong end of the decision.
The final round-robin game was against Port Moody, B.C., the eventual champions of the tournament but not before the Wolfpack beat them by a score of 4-3. Ryder Wicks scored the winner with seven minutes remaining in the third period on a breakaway chance.
“We got up on them, 3-1, and then they just turned it on and shut us down,” said coach Wicks. “They got two quick goals to tie it, but Ryder’s goal was huge.”
After the go-ahead marker, it turned into the Spencer Miller Show between the pipes as he shut the door the rest of the way, added coach Wicks.
That win put the Wolfpack into a three-way tie for first place in terms of standings, but it was goal differential which was the tiebreaker. Because of that, the Wolfpack ended up third with a semifinal game against the host team.
Wicks was blunt about his team’s performance, saying they laid an egg.
“We just weren’t playing well as a team and it was all mental,” he said. “They just weren’t mentally ready for that game.”
Still, the Wolfpack were in with a genuine chance to win it thanks to some super goaltending from Vincent Hottin. It was tied 1-1 after the first period but Vernon ended up taking a 3-1 lead into the third period, which eventually became 4-2, the final score.
“We pulled our goaltender down the stretch and we had nine shots on goal, but we just couldn’t score,” said Wicks.
Now for the continuation of the story from the beginning:
The Wolfpack ended up meeting the Wave for the D event title, but it almost ended up being a one-sided deal. The Wave were about to go into the game with a heavily-depleted roster thanks to the California Amateur Hockey Association, the league the Wave play in, forced them to play a playoff game which wasn’t scheduled when the team was accepted into the tournament in Vernon.
They weren’t allowed to forfeit the playoff game because if they did, they would be booted from the league. The Wave were forced to send back seven of their players for the game, leaving just eight to play a full-strength Wolfpack outfit.
Enter Wicks with a grand idea of sorts.
“I spoke with my people and tossed around the idea of having a fun game with them,” he said. “You don’t want to play a shorthanded team like that because we would win something like 25-0 and that’s no fun for anyone.”
Wicks said he sought out his opposite number from the Wave to make the offer, which was happily accepted.
One of the teams ended up wearing the Wolfpack’s white jerseys while the dark Wolfpack jerseys were used to go along with the dark jerseys of the Wave. There were even two new team names created for the game: the Yellowknife Surfers and the California Moosemeat.
The Moosemeat ended up winning by a score of 7-5 but Wicks said the final score was secondary to everything else that happened.
“Everything about it was so good,” he said. “We were making trades during the game and the deals were being announced over the P.A. system. There were lots of people there and media and everyone just had a ball watching it.”
The trophy itself was shared around by every single player on the ice, he added.
Following last year’s tournament, the San Diego Gulls squad from California made the trip to the city for an exchange with the Wolfpack. This time, it’s the Wave who have made the offer for the Wolfpack to go to California.
“They want to pay us back so they asked if we’d like to head down there,” said Wicks. “I told the coach that the dollar isn’t exactly strong right now but all joking aside, we’re building a real sense of hockey culture here with our friends from America. Brad Anstey did a lot of work to help get that going last year and I’m hoping it continues.”