PENTICTON, B.C. -- Years of work finally came to fruition for Penticton on Sunday night as more than 100 NHL prospects and five NHL organizations gathered in the city for the Vancouver Canucks' first Young Stars Tournament.
The Canucks' prospects are joined by squads from the Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Anaheim Ducks, and San Jose Sharks, who will play eight games in the course of five days. Though the event was announced officially in the spring by city officials and the Vancouver Canucks brass, it's a project that has been in the works for years.
"About five years ago, Penticton came to us and told us about their plans for a new building" said Stan Smyl, the Canucks' senior advisor to the general manager.
Finished in 2008, the 5,200 seat state-of-the-art facility, South Okanagan Events Centre, has brought future NHL stars to the city of 35,000 well known for its hot summers, beaches, and vineyards, as well as its rich hockey history.
In 1955, the local hockey team, the Penticton Vees, put the city of just 5,000 on the map when they represented Canada and won the gold medal at the World Championships in Krefeld, Germany, after beating the powerful Russians 5-0. Since the 1960s, the Junior A program, also known as the Vees, has nurtured numerous players that went on to NHL stardom. Notable Penticton alumni include Brett Hull, Paul Kariya, Ray Ferraro, Joe Murphy, Andy Moog, Duncan Keith and Brendan Morrison.
On July 14, the city celebrated "Duncan Keith Day" as the local boy returned home with the Stanley Cup, Norris Trophy and Olympic gold medal to share with the hockey fans of the city.
That combination of a rich hockey history and the fantastic new facility made the event a must for the Canucks.
"Being able to see the building, the visualization of it, and what they can do here, it was a natural to come in here," Smyl said. "Once they got the building, I knew people around here could make it happen."
Smyl, a former star with the Canucks, has spent many of his summers in the Okanagan Valley and is familiar with the hockey fans in the area. Yet he was still amazed at the turnout for Sunday's opening game that saw the Oilers' prospects face the Canucks.
"It's quite something. Throughout this whole province there's a real passion for hockey in general. And in this area, spending a lot of time out here during the summer, you meet a lot of Albertans that have moved out here. There are a lot of Canucks fans, but we also know that there are a lot of Oilers fans and Flames fans that are out here. You saw that (tonight); there was support for both teams. In general, just the passion for hockey in Western Canada and in B.C. is phenomenal."
While no player competing in the tournament has come near the buzz generated by the No. 1 pick of the 2010 Entry Draft, Taylor Hall of the Oilers, Anaheim prospect Brian Lebler's attendance is also a notable story this week. Though born in Austria while his father, Ed, was playing professional hockey, Brian grew up in Penticton and still makes the city his off-season home.
Lebler, now 22, suited up for the hometown Penticton Vees of the British Columbia Hockey League before receiving a scholarship to the University of Michigan after putting up 66 points and 155 PIM in 110 games during two seasons with the Vees. Lebler played as a true freshman -- a rarity in the modern college game -- but he didn't hit his stride until halfway through his collegiate career.
"Halfway through my junior year, after Christmas, is just when I really started to play my game, and to play with confidence," Lebler said.
The 6-foot-3, 215-pound power forward posted career highs as a senior this past season with 14 goals and 24 points in 42 games. His reward was a one-year contract with the AHL Syracuse Crunch in the spring.
After leaving Penticton as a 17-year-old local with potential, Lebler has now returned to home as a professional hockey player, an accomplishment not lost on the locals. His family has purchased numerous tickets to the Ducks games this week for relatives and friends. It's been five years since Brian's grandparents have been able to see him play.
"They're getting too old to travel so they haven't been able to see me play," Lebler said. "My grandpa's eyes are bad too, so hopefully his eyes are good (Monday) and he'll be able to see me."
The Ducks play Calgary in the first game of Monday's doubleheader.
Lebler knows he will be in for a treat as even he is amazed at the way his hometown has embraced the Young Stars Tournament.
"I know the community loves this kind of stuff; it's exciting," Lebler said. "If I was a little kid, I know I'd be excited to be here."
The Oilers beat the Canucks 4-1 in a game that saw a venue record attendance of 5,200 for a hockey game. While Taylor Hall drew the biggest cheers from a split crowd of Oilers and Canucks fans, it was Magnus Paajarvi who recorded two goals in the win.
In a physical evening match, 3,500 fans saw an older San Jose Sharks squad beat Anaheim's prospects 4-1, with Benn Ferriero recording a pair of assists in the win.
Monday sees the Calgary vs. Anaheim at 7 p.m. ET, and Vancouver vs. San Jose at 10:30 p.m.
Hall and the Oilers play their next game Tuesday against their provincial rivals from Calgary at 10:30 p.m. ET.