The Detroit Honeybaked team celebrates its victory in the AA division of last year's tournament. (Courtesy of Patrick Dom)

The hockey fever that's about to hit Quebec City is reminiscent, residents say, to the days when the NHL's Quebec Nordiques were around. 

The Pepsi Coliseum will be packed to capacity, fans will be asking for autographs, and hockey will be the main event. The big difference these days is the players are 11 and 12 years old.

Starting Wednesday, more than 2,000 kids from 16 countries will hit the ice for the 50th edition of the renowned Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament, where former NHL stars like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Guy Lafleur scored major attention as youngsters.

"This tournament transforms the city every year, it really is a hockey fever that hits," says Michele Jean, whose family will be billeting two Austrian players at their Quebec City home.

"During the 12 days of the tournament, the Pepsi Coliseum is full. People go back year after year to watch the games. It's really, really big, especially since we don't have the Nordiques," Jean says. "Quebec is a hockey city, that's for sure."

16 countries represented

Only the top peewee teams are accepted into the tournament, which runs Feb. 11-22. This year teams from such countries as Austria, England, Switzerland, the United States, Germany and Italy will be competing.

Todd Harkins played in the tournament as a 12-year-old, and after playing pro hockey, including at the NHL level, he's now coaching the Vancouver-based peewee AAA North Shore Winter Club.

The North Shore Winterhawks won the tourney with Harkins behind the bench in 2005.

"It was incredible," he says. "This tournament is one of those things where you have to be there to understand the experience. It really is a world-class event for these kids."

It also comes with a lot of pressure to perform.

Boyd DiClemente, 12, a goaltender for the Peterborough Petes, who open the tourney Friday against the San Jose Sharks, says the pressure's on but he won't let it get to him.

"I just have to keep my head down," he says. "We're just really excited to be in this tournament.

"There's been some really good players here in the past, and there's a lot of history. I'm pretty sure Guy Lafleur scored seven goals in one game here. A lot of good players were first noticed in Quebec."

955 players went on to NHL careers

Since the tournament started in 1960, 955 of its players have gone on to play in the NHL. DiClemente says that won't be on his mind when he's between the pipes for the Petes.

"We just don't want to be the first ones getting knocked out," he says. "What I'm looking forward to most is staying in a boarding home, meeting new people, and playing teams from all over the world."

Bill Schlitt, president of the Ontario-based Whitby Minor Hockey Association, echoes that point.

"Hockey's the reason to go, obviously, but it really comes back to the experience of being there, doing the billeting, playing teams you've never played before," Schlitt says. "It's something people remember, especially the players and the parents, for many, many years. That's a good thing. It's one of the good things the sport can do for us."

It is the fourth time in six years the Whitby Wildcats peewee AAA team has qualified for the tourney.

Qualifying is the first step and often a process that starts well before kids are peewee age. Brian McDavid, coach of the Ontario-based York Simcoe Express, says his team has been gearing up for this tournament for a long time.  

"We've been looking forward to this for three years," McDavid says. "It's the 400th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City, it's the 50th anniversary of the tournament, so there's a lot of anticipation from our perspective to get there.

"To say our team is excited is an understatement."

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