KAMLOOPS — It may not be the oldest bantam hockey tournament — but for the last half century the Kamloops International Bantam Ice Hockey Tournament's mantra has been to provide top calibre hockey for players at the bantam age level, and to provide a stepping stone to some players on their way to the NHL.
Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Mark Recchi — to name a few.
KIBIHT is underway with its second half century — the 51st annual — getting underway today with 32 teams.
For 50 years many of those who have played in KIBIHT have given back.
Aaron Keller played in the tournament in the early 1990s before going on to a stellar four-year career with the Kamloops Blazers, including two Memorial Cup championships followed by many years playing pro hockey in Japan.
This week his 13-year-old son is playing in the tournament with the Thompson Blazers, and Aaron is a KIBIHT volunteer.
"Being born and raised here in Kamloops, it was the highlight of my bantam year," says Aaron Keller. "I was fortunate enough to play in it a couple of times, when I was a first-year as well as a second-year bantam."
Another KIBIHT alumnus is Shayne Zulyniak, with Sherwood Park in the late 1980s. This season Zulyniak is the head coach of the Kamloops Junior Blazers tier two team.
"It's a competitive tournament," says Zulyniak. "You know there's going to be a lot of good players, a lot of good teams. There's teams from some small towns. There's good players all across the world. And you know you run into a little small town way up in Timbuktu, and you realize there's a lot of good players. It's just the calibre of the tournament — the professionalism. The executive does a real good job in setting it up, so we can just go out and have fun."
Anchorage, Alaska isn't exactly in Timbuktu, but it is a considerable distance and expense to travel here to play.
Alaska teams have been loyal supporters of KIBIHT for several years. This year with two teams — the Alaska North Stars in tier one and the Alaska All Stars in the tier two division.
"It's not as far as everybody thinks," says Alaska All Stars coach Nathan Rocheleu. "We're neighbors, really. But coming from Alaska to Canada, it's their first trip, playing in Canada.
"In Anchorage where we come from," says Alaska All Stars captain Luke Anderson, "there are three major teams — us, the Oilers and North Stars. There's one team up in Fairbanks, they're about an eight-hour drive away. Then there's a team about a half hour away from us and there's a team in Kenai about two and a half hours away, so we pretty well play the same teams most of the time, except for tourneys."
"This is an idea to get the kids an opportunity to see what the competition is like elsewhere," says Alaska All Stars coach Nathan Rocheleau. "So we come down here, we play some of the top talented teams at their level, at their age group. We've got a young team. They're all first-year bantam. We play in a league back home where it's a lot of second-year bantams. Here you're going to have a mix — so the idea of coming and playing, at a high level, so these guys to get to see what the competition, work ethic and what it takes to become better hockey players.
Organizing and putting on a tournament like KIBIHT takes a lot of year-round work.
But for the organizers and volunteers the rewards are worth the effort.
"We had the kids come in and they all had the biggest smiles on their faces, and they're all ready to go," says KIBIHT chairman Jan Antons. "That's the biggest reward we can ask for — it's a blast."
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