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