Que­bec City crowds primed for 50th year of high-fly­ing pee­wee hockey

Cape Breton Post - - SPORTS - BY ANDY BLATCHFORD THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

MONTREAL — The White Tor­nado’s skate blades had barely slashed the fresh ice in­side Que­bec City’s Colisee when he felt the rum­ble of thou­sands of roar­ing hockey fans.

Even at 13, the skinny, shy kid from south­ern On­tario, nick­named for his bold, white gloves and un­matched skills on the rink, brought daz­zled crowds to their feet.

In Wayne Gret­zky’s first game at the 1974 Que­bec In­ter­na­tional Pee­Wee Hockey Tour­na­ment, he led the Brant­ford Turk­stra Lum­ber to a 25-0 thrash­ing over a team from Texas.

The shy, blond boy, who would later be­come known as The Great One, buried seven goals and four as­sists in that first match. He notched 26 points in four games dur­ing a dom­i­nat­ing per­for­mance on pee­wee hockey’s big­gest stage.

To­day, the puck drops for the 50th edi­tion of the il­lus­tri­ous Que­bec City tour­na­ment, renowned for its mon­ster crowds and for stag­ing the early chap­ters of some of hockey’s great­est leg­ends.

The likes of Mario Lemieux, Guy Lafleur, Brad Park and Marcel Dionne are among more than 100,000 play­ers who have laced up for the 11-day tour­ney of 11-, 12-and 13-year-olds.

And close to 1,000 of those kids have gone on to play in the NHL.

“It’s a mem­ory that he’s never ever for­got­ten,” Wal­ter Gret­zky said of his son.

“He’ll al­ways talk about the Que­bec pee­wee tour­na­ment. He’ll al­ways men­tion it when he talks about mi­nor hockey.”

Pa­trick Dom, the tour­na­ment’s di­rec­tor, said the kids rou­tinely play be­fore chant­ing, drum-beat­ing crowds of 7,000 to 12,000.

“Some­times they don’t even know who’s on the ice — they just cheer for both teams,” Dom said. “It’s pure hockey.” He said the play­ers are just at the right age to pro­duce mem­o­rable hockey matches, which ex­plains why the tour­na­ment at­tracts 200,000 fans year af­ter year.

“(In) atom they’re too young, ban­tam they’re start­ing to be rough — so pee­wee’s per­fect,” he said.

“Kids give ev­ery­thing they have in their heart ... to win the game — that’s what makes this tour­na­ment so spe- cial.

“I talk a lot with guys who played in the NHL, and for all of them, the high­light of their mi­nor hockey ca­reer was to play in the Que­bec pee­wee tour­na­ment. Why? I think, first of all, the crowds.”

Dionne, who sits fifth all-time in NHL scor­ing, re­mem­bers re­ceiv­ing his own hockey card and sign­ing au­to­graphs for fans as a pre-teen dur­ing the 1962, ’63 and ’64 tour­na­ments.

The hype was in­cred­i­ble, re­called Dionne, who squared off against fel­low stars Lafleur and Gil­bert Per­reault.

“As a young man, just com­ing out there and see­ing the place sold out — it was un­be­liev­able,” the 57-year-old Hall of Famer said in an in­ter­view from his sports mar­ket­ing busi­ness in Ni­a­gara Falls, Ont.

“It had a huge im­pact as far as ex­po­sure at the time. I re­ceived my first let­ter from the Montreal Cana­di­ens at the age of 12.”

Dom said the hockey fes­ti­val pulled in $21 mil­lion last year for Que­bec City, mak­ing it one of the big­gest an­nual events in the re­gion.

Around 350 vol­un­teers work the tour­ney each year and 500 fam­i­lies sign up to bil­let out-of-town play­ers.

Dom said he can’t ac­cept ev­ery vol­un­teer re­quest, es­pe­cially since many lo­cals keep com­ing back.

“ When you have to refuse vol­un­teers, it means that your or­ga­ni­za­tion is in good health,” he said.

Monique Lor­tie has lodged play­ers in her home for the last 46 years.

One for­mer guest, in par­tic­u­lar, has made her per­haps the most fa­mous pee­wee hockey guardian.

Dubbed “Mama Gret­zky” by fel­low vol­un­teers, Lor­tie gave the young phe­nom a place to stay back in 1974. She also put up two of his broth­ers at later tour­na­ments.

Lor­tie re­mem­bers the swarms of jour­nal­ists who flooded the city dur­ing Gret­zky’s year. She said dozens knocked on her front door, hop­ing to chat with the lit­tle guy.

“He was not very big,” Lor­tie said of Gret­zky. “But he was very dis­ci­plined, very se­ri­ous.”

When asked about young Gret­zky’s morn­ing prepa­ra­tion se­crets be­fore he headed out to ter­ror­ize op­pos­ing net­min­ders, Lor­tie swears there was noth­ing spe­cial.

“He ate ce­real like all the oth­ers,” she said.

The Cana­dian Press

Wayne Gret­zky of the Brant­ford, Ont. team meets hockey great Jean Be­liv­eau at the Que­bec City Pee­wee hockey tour­na­ment in this Feb., 1974 file photo. The puck drops to­day for the 50th edi­tion of the il­lus­tri­ous Que­bec In­ter­na­tional Pee-Wee Hockey...

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