Ask any Los Angeles Jr. King fortunate enough to participate in the famed Tournoi International de Hockey Pee-Wee de Quebec, and safe bet they’ll tell you it marks a signature moment during their youth hockey career and one they'll never forget.
This year, it was the Pee Wee AAA Major 2002 club’s time to embrace the opportunity, and the trip clearly lived up to its billing.
“It’s an experience of a lifetime,” Jon Seekins, the team’s manager and father of Jr. Kings defenseman Nathaniel Seekins, said of the 56th annual event, which ran from Feb. 11-22.
“There’s no doubt this tournament, our billet families and the city of Quebec will forever be remembered as one of the highlights of youth hockey for our players and their families.”
Jr. Kings head coach Jamie Storr, a former Los Angeles Kings goaltender, couldn’t agree more.
“In minor hockey, if your son or daughter is capable of playing at the AAA level come Pee Wee Major, going to Quebec is something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives,” said Storr. “It was a real treat for our players - all of whom come from the California beaches and inland areas - to compete against kids from all over the world.”
Yes, there’s the hockey - the Jr. Kings forged a 4-5-1 overall record at the event (0-2 in Elite AAA division tournament play) - but what makes the showcase so unique are the vast variety of cultural opportunities the players - and their families - are able to experience.
The team lived and breathed chilly Quebec City to its fullest during its two-week stay, visiting the Ice Hotel, St. Lawrence River, Winter Carnival, Sugar Shack and Quebec Aquarium.
The club also took in the Village Vacances Valcartier winter snow park, enjoyed some dogsledding and snow tubing, indulged in a popular local dish - poutine - and, go figure, found time to sneak in a little pond hockey.
Pin-trading at the rinks, hotels and shopping malls - even the airport and on the plane - also helped define the Quebec adventure.
“And, of course, Timbits (donuts) at Tim Hortons were a player-favorite,” said Seekins.
Having the players billet is another highlight that makes the Quebec trip special. Unlike traditional tournaments where teams stay at a hotel, the kids are treated to local hospitality under the roofs of French-Canadian families where they’re able to flex their independence while learning a lot more about life outside of Southern California.
“All of the players enjoyed an amazing billet-family experience,” said Seekins.
On the ice, L.A. fell to the Adirondack Jr. Wings and Bay State Breakers in tournament play (its game against the Wings was played at Pepsi Coliseum - home of the NHL's former Quebec Nordiques). In both contests, the Jr. Kings held a 2-1 lead entering the third period before falling, 3-2.
At the tournament, 116 teams competed from across the globe in five divisions. Three of the Jr. Kings’ eight “friendlies” were against teams from Finland, Germany and Switzerland.
Other highlights of the trip included meeting Wayne Gretzky’s father, Walter, during a Quebec Remparts (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) game, and having former NHL defenseman Chris Pronger stop by the Jr. Kings’ locker room prior to their game against the St. Louis Jr. Blues.
Quebec also marked the Pee Wee team’s last tournament trip with forward Anna Gallagher, an original member of the squad from its inaugural 2009-10 campaign who’ll play for an all-girls club next season.
“We’re surely going to miss her,” said Seekins.
Other members of the Jr. Kings’ Pee Wee Major team included forwards Maksim Bure, Thomas Gannon, Emerson Goode, Tyler Green, Johan Kim and Ethan Light; defensemen Jonathan Alterman, Lucas Constantine, Noah Jamani, Nolan Lazar, Isaiah Martinez and Maximus Nguyen; forward/defenseman Tyson Storr; and goaltenders Max Eddy and Cameron Milewski.
Val Bure and Jaroslav Modry assisted Storr behind the bench (the group will remain intact to lead the Jr. Kings’ 02 group again next season).
For Jamani, getting on the plane back to LAX wasn’t easy after soaking up all the fun and excitement in Quebec.
“It was the best experience of my entire life and I’ll never forget it,” he said. “And I don't just mean the hockey, but everything - staying with a billet family, the snow, pond hockey, trading pins.
“It was all stuff I've never done before and I'm so glad I had the opportunity. I didn't want it to end.”