Winterhawks taking flight 

As more hockey players move on from Whistler than ever before, we delve into the Whistler Minor Hockey Association, where it all begins

click to flip through (8) PHOTO COURTESY OF ST. CLOUD STATE UNIVERSITY - Whistler's Garrett Milan is completing his fourth season with the NCAA Division I's St. Cloud State Huskies in Minnesota.
  • Photo courtesy of St. Cloud State University
  • Whistler's Garrett Milan is completing his fourth season with the NCAA Division I's St. Cloud State Huskies in Minnesota.
 

Claude Giroux lined up on the blue line, ripping point shots toward the net as a rustling of bodies sought to get a stick on the puck. Shortly thereafter, Erik Karlsson dashed toward the goal, the black biscuit corralled neatly by his blade as he sought a prime scoring position on the goalie.

No, the two National Hockey League stars, who captain the Philadelphia Flyers and Ottawa Senators, respectively, weren't slicing through the Meadow Park Sports Centre ice last week. But that high-level competitive spirit was certainly present for the Whistler Winterhawks bantam rep practice as the squad began making its final preparations for BC Hockey's Bantam Tier 4 Hockey Championships, slated for March 15 to 20.

The team displayed a mix of focus and feistiness in the first of a handful of training sessions before heading north to Fraser Lake, about a nine-and-a-half hour drive from Whistler.

Upon fanning on strong scoring chances, shooters were quick to forcefully tap their sticks on the ice in frustration, fully aware a miss would be unacceptable when the puck drops in the town of about 1,150. Many know the edge between victory and defeat at the provincial level, having won the Peewee Tier 3 title in 2012. It was the first provincial championship for the resort.

At the same time, on the first day of the rest of their season, the players weren't practicing robotically by any stretch, with a couple of overly enthusiastic goal celebrations. They even engaged in lighthearted pushing and shoving in the corners before recapturing resolve and hurtling away from the boards for another shot on net.

Though head coach Bob Andrea acknowledged the following practices would be higher tempo, alternating between drills and scrimmages, the former Ontario Hockey League defenceman and one-time Chicago Blackhawks draft pick recognizes that the players need to strike the balance between maintaining intensity and enjoying the game.

Xavier Cadoret, 14, is one of the bantams' rising stars. Having played up at the midget level as an affiliated player he is gaining a thirst for higher competition.

The Winterhawks may have ended up being better than their tier locally, staying competitive against squads a level up and even winning their fair share, but now the regular season is history, as Cadoret and the rest of the bantams look to recreate the feeling they earned as peewees in Quesnel in 2012.

"It was one in a lifetime," Cadoret says.

"Well, maybe two in a lifetime," he corrects himself, grinning.

That season, Cadoret recalls, head coach Greg Welsh left no doubt they would raise a banner at the end of the season, instilling a championship mindset from Day 1.

Ever-lasting experience

The taste of glory is still sweet on the tongues of the Winterhawks who know it, and helps to drive them once again. Individual glories like those found on the mountain, tennis court or golf course can be eternally savoured, but achievements from working as a unit can be shared and reminisced about years down the line.

"It's pretty cool to be on the first team from Whistler to go to provincials and bring home the banner," defenceman Noah Brusse says. "It was mind-blowing."

"It was a close game, too (1-0 over Vanderhoof), so it was a relief," adds centre Cody Flann.

The highway to glory is a long one, not only figuratively, but literally. In addition to the sojourn to the remote championship gauntlet, the Winterhawks are road warriors throughout the season, regularly making the trip to Vancouver and outlying areas like Chilliwack. While the trip to Whistler is a rare outlier on the schedule for most clubs, regularly viewed as a team-building opportunity, travel is a reality of life for Winterhawks of all ages and it helps them grow into not just teammates, but friends.

"Most of the time, you drive down with your teammates and stop on the way for food," Cadoret says. "We don't really talk about hockey until the game, so it's good."

Knowing the camaraderie hockey provides, as one of his closest friends is an old fellow rink rat, WMHA president Steve Legge serves as more than just a figurehead. Legge coaches his two children, son Aiden as an assistant on the peewee rep team and daughter Taylor as the atom house league team's head coach. He feels the organization has strengthened many friendships since first taking to the ice in 1994.

"Hockey has that bond like no other, and that's what Whistler Minor does, it gives you that bond with buddies for life," he said. "When the (peewee rep) kids lost (in the league's final four) the other day, the kids weren't as upset about losing as they were about not being able to play as a group anymore."

Keeping costs down

As with many sports in Whistler, travel and event costs are a consideration for parents of athletes.

As price tags within the sport rise, the WMHA seeks to keep hockey as open as possible to local kids. Andrea says sponsors quickly kicked in cash even before the bantams made provincials, giving them a vote of confidence. As well, he notes registration costs are among the lowest in the province as the Resort Municipality of Whistler works alongside the association to keep ice-time fees low.

At the bantam level, for example, WMHA fees were $485 for early birds and $560 for late registration (beginning Aug. 15) in 2014-15, while several other associations ranged from $600 to $900 for a base for the season and began charging for late registration several months earlier.

Legge has been involved with the association since 2006 and has seen some fluctuation in numbers in that time. The number of players was around 150 when he started, rose to about 200 and has since slid to 180 in 2013-14, primarily due to families moving away. But, says Legge, the future is encouraging for the program with numbers of younger kids and female players on the rise.

Another factor in keeping the costs low is shared ice time, especially at the younger levels. Players share ice at least once a week through the atom level. Legge describes the situation as "a huge challenge," but one coaches work to overcome.

"A disadvantage is we don't have as much ice time, so we have to get along better to share ice," Legge says. "You have to work your ice the best you can every chance you get."

Mike Borrelli, who manages Source for Sports locations in both Whistler and Squamish and has been with the company for eight years, said equipment sales have increased over that timeframe. In particular, sales of skates and complete equipment packages have driven that rise.

For kids starting out, Borrelli estimated kids could get outfitted in "decent" equipment for $350 to $400, though that can double for premium equipment.

Topping the mountain

Many athletic people come to Whistler because of the mountains' allure.

Skiing drives nearly everything in the resort in some way, and so it's only natural that it effects minor hockey as well.

Legge acknowledges that the Whistler Mountain Ski Club is the dominant sporting association for youth in town, and so he works closely to reduce conflicts for athletes in both sports wherever possible.

Andrea says he likes to see players take part in other sports, from skiing, to soccer to mountain biking — but noted on the rep team, a minimum level of commitment is expected.

"There's times when there's a conflict in terms of scheduling, and personally, I want the child to choose what they're passionate about first," he says. "If they're more passionate about skiing, then by all means, choose that.

"Our kids are super-athletic, so that's a huge plus for us. Even though hockey isn't the top sport, our kids are so athletic we can compete with anyone we play against."

However, if players are going to rise in hockey it needs to be their main priority.

Defenceman Taylor Derynck, whose Alberni Valley Bulldogs were set to kick off the BCHL playoffs against the Nanaimo Clippers on March 6, knew from a young age he would find most of his athletic success on the ice. But that didn't stop the Whistler youth from doing as much other sport as possible, as well as taking advantage of spring hockey through Vancouver's Hollyburn Country Club.

"There was a group of us that stuck with it, and we played a lot of other sports all the time," says Derynck, 17. "We played soccer and we went skiing all the time.

"(But) we thought we could go furthest in hockey and we loved the game more than anything else."

Moving on up

The old adage in hockey is that players should play for the crest on the front of the jersey and not the name on the back, and the players are certainly thrilled to do so. For some, though, the Winterhawks crest is not the last one they wore. While none of the Winterhawks alum is wearing any of the 30 most cherished logos in the game — those of the National Hockey League teams, outside of practice at least —their odds are steadily improving.

Members of the bantam Winterhawks are approaching a crossroads in their careers, deciding if the sport will be just a hobby or something greater.

Players trickled out from the area just over a decade ago — Tyler Dufour played four seasons of NCAA puck, including two at Quinnipiac University, Matt Gibbons parlayed his BCHL dominance into a cup of coffee with Michigan Tech and the University of Western Ontario, Pemberton's Brett Gilmour skated three seasons for State University of New York at Plattsburgh, and fellow Pembertonian Tom Phillips spent a season riding buses in Alabama with the Southern Professional Hockey League's Huntsville Havoc.

Of the nine Whistler-born players listed on the Internet Hockey Database (Phillips and Gilmour are Pemberton's only representatives), arguably the most complete collection of notable pucksters, six are active this season. Garrett Milan, 24, is the torchbearer, completing his fourth season with the NCAA Division I's St. Cloud State Huskies in Minnesota. Three — defencemen Derynck and Dante Fabbro and forward Austin Evans — are entrenched at the Junior 'A' level while defenceman Ryan Grills and forward Tyler Welsh have dipped in their toes this season as affiliated players. Grills and Welsh are in Junior 'B' full-time this year, as are Jonas and Evan Horvath, Grant Iles and Thomas Cankovic.

Milan and Evans will see their eligibility at their respective levels expire at the end of the season. Milan is exploring opportunities in Europe, while Evans will ensure the resort retains NCAA representation. On Feb. 27, Evans committed to the Division III Norwich University Cadets. The Northfield, Vt.-based school topped the national USCHO.com poll as of March 2.

Jonas Horvath, playing with the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League's Comox Valley Glacier Kings, credits his junior longevity to the WMHA. After all, he played for current coach Joey Ewing here in the Winterhawks program, where he coached for about a decade. Horvath was ready to give up the game two seasons ago after a disappointing season with the Peninsula Panthers, but Ewing acquired Horvath and convinced him to try out in Courtenay. He made the squad and served as one of the team's alternate captains this year and helped groom fellow Whistlerite Grant Iles for the league.

Noting few kids went on to junior hockey from Whistler, Ewing and the WMHA sought to increase players' ceilings and help them realize they could make it. That got the pipeline flowing.

"There was the talent, but there might not have been the drive, or the vigour or the person to have the connections to get them there," Ewing says. "We changed the program immensely into being high performance and working off-ice."

Earlier this season Horvath told Pique: "(Ewing's) always been a part of my hockey career, and I know he's been a part of many other young prospects coming from Whistler."

Here at home, Cadoret hopes to make a run at playing hockey professionally, but at his tender age, isn't ready to leave home just yet to get noticed by a junior club. In the past, players went to the city to try their hands at the midget level. Evans played for the Greater Vancouver Canadians, Cankovic went to the Burnaby Winter Club and Milan suited up for the Vancouver NW Giants.

With the RPM Hockey's Whistler Hockey Academy setting up shop this year, players are better able to hone their skills than ever before. Cadoret, who dreams of playing professionally, said his skills developed immensely with the three extra days of ice time per week under the instruction of Mike Borrelli and Tim Knight.

"I want to go far. It's not easy coming from a small town. I don't want to move to Vancouver," he said. "Sometimes when I'm at home doing homework, I think about how cool it would be to be a professional hockey player. Your job would be doing what you love."

Legge credits the RPM academy, which is a partnership with the Whistler Secondary School, for keeping elite players in town. Even in its rookie year of operation, he's seen a marked effect and says plans are in the works to start a similar program for kids in Grades 6 and 7 next season.

"Kids don't want to move away," he said. "(And) you can get the amount of ice (here that) you can get in the city.

"Our kids have gotten that much better."

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