Provincial tournaments: 'It takes a whole army to pull this off'

The preparations for many of the year-end minor hockey tourneys happening across the country started before the puck dropped on the season in September.

It's September. Local arenas are busy with opening puck drops, kids lacing up skates, and parents sipping coffee in the bleachers. Coaches are getting to know the newcomers, and old friends (or foes) are reunited on the ice.

It's also the time when preparations for the end-of-year tournaments begin.

"You're completely immersed in it," said Shelley Lawrence, of the Kneehill Minor Hockey Association, which covers the townships of Trochu and Three Hill, Alta. "I found it to be a very full slate."

All that work is on display right now across the country as minor hockey seasons everywhere come to their conclusions.

Lawrence's job wasn't easy. She was co-chair of the organizing committee for Alberta's bantam-AA provincial championships this season, held March 12-15. It's her third time helping plan a provincial.

The responsibilities included (but weren't limited to) finding ice time, recruiting volunteers, coming up with a financial plan, lobbying for support from the local communities and minor hockey associations, organizing accommodations, coming up with meal plans, and wooing potential sponsors.

And all that had to be done before the committee sent their hosting bid to Hockey Alberta.

"There's a lot of work that goes into the bid," Lawrence said. She estimates that three quarters of the overall work involved happens during the planning stages before a bid is submitted, with no guarantee that the association will end up hosting the event come springtime.

Guarantee doesn't mean less work

And even if you have that guarantee, say when you're organizing a top-notch, end-of-season invitational, there's still a lot of other prep work to be done.

"The biggest job is recruiting the quality of teams to maintain [the tournament's] reputation," said Steven Oldale, who's helping organize the Crowchild Challenge in Calgary set to start on April 9. It's a high-level invitational involving atom and peewee AA teams from Canada, the U.S., even Europe.

That means making a lot of phone calls and emails from the get-go to try and lock down the squads they want, on top of all the other tournament prep work that goes along with a bigger event.

"It's hundreds of hours of work when you think about all the people involved," he said.

And there are a ton of people who need to come together to make these tournaments run smoothly. Committees need to be formed, arena staff booked, town and minor hockey associations brought on board, fundraisers held, raffle tables staffed, and so on.

"It takes a whole entire army to pull this off," said Lawrence.

Inevitable scramble

And an army is definitely needed for a provincial championship, because it's a different type of beast altogether. For one, organizers don't have the luxury of knowing who's coming to the dance until the final playoff game is decided. That means an inevitable scramble to get everything done at the end.

"The last month is always hairy," Lawrence said, because all the deadlines happen at once. Registration cheques had to come in soon after teams won their regional championships, so to save time, the organizing committee sent the tournament package to both finalists.

Lawrence's workload and that of her peers significantly increased closer to tournament time. Five to 10 hours a week suddenly turned into 25 to 30 a few weeks before the opening puck drop.

It goes along with the higher expectations that come with hosting a provincial championship. Like provincials across Canada, it's often the centrepiece of a minor hockey season, and it has to look every bit the part.

That means banners hanging everywhere, auction tables packed with goodies, and a spotless arena running smoothly among many other considerations.

This is when all the time taken planning and preparing for the event pays off.

This is 'The Show'

"You want people to walk in and go 'Wow, this is The Show,'" Lawrence said. "Because, for a lot of kids, this is the highlight of their hockey career."

Tournament time means a lot of hours at the rink making sure things are running as they should, but it's also the big reward for the people who put hundreds of hours into planning the event.

"It's so overwhelming and so exciting to see your kids at a tournament of this calibre," Lawrence said. Her son's team was one of the 10 participating in the provincial finals this year, and they made it to the semifinals.

"It's the most rewarding thing you can do as a hockey parent," she said.