Canal Flats, B.C., becomes mecca for Calgary hockey tournaments

Canal Flats, B.C., has become the go-to place for Calgary minor hockey teams looking for a place to host tournaments. The local arena is booked every weekend until March and dozens of other tournaments have been turned away.

No ice time in Calgary? No problem. Canal Flats is only 3 hours away

The only arena in this village of 700 - it's booked with Calgary hockey tournaments every weekend from now until March, 2017. The arena manager says he's turned down almost 40 other tournament requests. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

It's 8 a.m. on Sunday morning as the mini-vans start to roll into the parking lot outside the Canal Flats arena. Kids jump out and wheel hockey bags as tall as they are across the gravel lot. 

It's a scene played out in arenas all over Western Canada.

What makes this place different is that not one of these kids is a local. Every player is from Calgary and drove the three hours just to play in this tournament in Canal Flats, a village of about 700 people nestled between mountain ranges in B.C.'s East Kootenay region.

Marcus Lambe, 7, of Calgary gets ready for a game in Canal Flats arena. (Submitted by Jon Lambe)

Canal Flats has become a mecca for Calgary teams looking to host an out-of-town hockey tournament. The rink is booked every weekend until March and dozens of other requests have been turned away.

It's also building up big hopes in the small community, which lies south of Invermere, B.C.

Renovate it and they will come

Mathieu Fournier says it's a "lemonade-from lemons" kind of story that started over a decade ago when the rink was struggling to stay open. Fournier is the arena manager in Canal Flats, today sporting his Montreal Canadiens jersey to bug his Zamboni driver (who is a Leafs fan). 

Mathieu Fournier, manager of the Canal Flats arena, stands beside the new Zamboni they were able to buy with the revenue from Calgary tournaments. They also renovated the ice and the bleachers at a cost of $1.7 million. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

"It started about 2005, the diminishing minor hockey numbers were happening down here. So we got some Calgary tournaments happening and it was easy after that." 

After each tournament, a team manager would want to rebook and then word spread.

He says he's booked up for this season and has had to turn away 35 to 40 tournament requests.

Fournier estimates 1,800 Calgary kids play on his ice every year. Add in the parents and siblings and the numbers walking through his doors swell to 5,000.

It's the biggest money maker in this village.

"We spent $1.7 million renovating over the past three years," he said. 

They have a shiny new red and white Zamboni, new ice and bleachers. Next up, they hope to insulate the rink so that parents streaming in can leave their blankets and down coats at home.

Why Canal Flats?

The fact that thousands of parents are willing to make the three hour drive to a town that doesn't even have a main street for a weekend of sitting in a cold arena proves a few things.

Besides the obvious — many Calgary parents love their hockey — patching together enough ice time to host a tournament in the city is near impossible. And pricey.

Ice time in Calgary costs a third more than what it costs at the Canal Flats arena.

And then there's the magic of getting away.

There's nowhere to spend the night in Canal Flats, so families typically stay up the highway at the Fairmont Hot Springs Resort — another institution kept hopping during winters by hockey families.

At the resort, the kids are welcome to run feral through the hallways, you can keep a tab at some restaurants by your kid's jersey number and mini hockey sticks are for sale alongside ceramic mugs in the gift store.

Hockey coach Doug Wilson has been to Canal Flats once this year and will return in a few weeks.

Doug Wilson, coach to 7- and 8-year-old hockey players, has been to Canal Flats once for a tournament this year and will be back in late November. (Judy Aldous/CBC)

"I've been to out of town tournaments before, I've been to Leduc, we've been to Red Deer. But it's a little different when really the only thing in the town is the tournament going on. And really the only people in the hotel are tournament kids. So to see 80 kids playing in the same tournament all splashing around in the hot springs afterwards, that's a pretty cool thing."

And now some other local businesses are hoping to take advantage of this captive market.

Cashing in on hockey 

Kelly Kask, looking every bit the part of an interior B.C. man with his woolly toque and plaid jacket, pulls into the parking lot of the Base Camp Coffee Shop, which is a slapshot away from the Canal Flats Arena.

Kelly Kask stands beside the coffee shop he and his girlfriend just bought across from the Canal Flats arena. They plan on catering to hockey parents. 'There's nothing for them to do right now.' (Judy Aldous/CBC)

Kask and his girlfriend have bought Base Camp and are set to open mid-November. 

​"We'll have more of a sports-minded menu. As opposed to loading up at the concession I'm sure you saw that has wonderful hot chocolate and fabulous licorice. (We will have) healthy snacks," he said, adding many hockey parents think their kids are going to make the NHL so they want to give them protein and healthy food.

Kask also has plans for a "parents-only" lounge as a sort of refuge from the noise of 14 kids playing mini-sticks.


Judy Aldous

CBC Radio

Judy Aldous is an award-winning reporter and producer who has worked across the country for CBC Radio. She's been working with CBC Calgary since 2002 and is currently the host of alberta@noon.