All for the love of hockey.
Over 100 players on eight teams from the Okanagan and Lower Mainland battled their hearts out Saturday under the bright lights of the South Okanagan Events Centre and the OHS arena next door in the annual special needs Peach City Hockey Tournament.
Aged six to 51, the kids and adults spent the day laughing, sometimes crying, but always cheering each other on.
In addition to the games, the players also took part in a skills competition and celebrated with a banquet at the Penticton Trade and Convention Centre in the evening.
The Penticton Special Needs Hockey Program is a joint effort on the part of the city’s Parks and Recreation department and corporate sponsors.
Penticton and Kelowna each had two teams, with the others coming from Vernon, Kamloops, Surrey and Vancouver.
After his team’s first game, a victory, 14-year-old Brandon Drury who was in net for the younger Fresh Start team was all smiles lying on the dressing room floor as his mom Jackie Hooper and Steve Brown were tasked with a leg each to remove the goalie pads.
“I just love the sport it’s just so much fun, that’s all I really want to do, no school just hockey,” said Brandon who proudly boasts his cousin is Chris Drury, who played his last four seasons with the New York Rangers of the NHL. “I love my team, they’re good people, they’re great. I was surprised, usually they mess around ,but today they showed me they could play.
“I want to be a goalie for New York.”
The Upper Dek Vees (named for one of their major sponsors Dek Smart) got their humble beginnings in 2008 with a single team and a handful of members, now grown to two teams and having 44 players.
“Why has it grown? Because we have a whole lot of fun,” said Jason Bungay (everyone knows him as Jay) who co-founded the organization along with Carol Sheridan who was working at Penticton Parks and Recreation at the time. “The reason I started the program was because of working with the special needs program in the community and they’re all hockey fans.
“They know hockey, the love hockey they come to the Vees games, so why aren’t they playing? What’s the hurdle? The hurdle was someone to organize and someone to pay for the ice, so we opened the door in Penticton for them.”
The Upper Dek Vees players are devoted fans of the B.C. Hockey League Vees, who also sponsor the program.
“I mean they bleed blue,” said Bungay with a laugh.
But even he was surprised just how much when he went into the senior team’s dressing room before the first game Saturday.
“So I open the door and I hear Fred (the Vees head coach and general manager) in the background, oh Fred showed up for the game. Their (players) heads are bowed and their listening to a recording of Fred giving a speech to his team,” said Bungay. “They’re listening to Fred’s voice on the speaker and as soon as the music came on the players just erupted and so we had a little cheer afterwards, really inspirational stuff.
“This is all about being team players and we talk to them about representing the community and so when your are in the community you have a responsibility. You’re part of this team.”
Bungay has watched his players grow over the years developing confidence in all facets of their life through their progression on the ice.
“We try to meet them where they’re at, help them reach their potential, try to help them enjoy the game,” he said. “Some of them have the motor skills but just can’t put the social part together and we’ve just got a great group of volunteers to help that.”
Senior Vees team member Barnabas Laflamme looking out onto the ice surface before the game said he was: “Excited and nervous. But it’s just having fun with friends and learning new skills.”
Fresh Start’s also described playing hockey as “fun and challenging.”
His father Rob agreed and added: “It’s important for him to learn proper etiquette in hockey. And that’s why we have him in hockey so he can learn how to be a good team player and it works very well.”
Local hockey legend Ivan McLelland was on hand to drop the puck in the morning’s opening ceremonies.
“It’s important to support these kids, they all have aspirations to become hockey players like most Canadian kids,” he said afterwards. “For me it’s a wonderful opportunity to give them some support and encourage them.
“And you know what, we all love the game.”