Camrose's passion for hockey dates back more than 50 years.
Driving down Highway 13 in Central Alberta, a casual observer might completely dismiss the small city of Camrose as just another stop on the map.
Not much to see, not much to do, just pass through and move on to bigger and better.
That is, until you realize that Camrose is a pulsing hockey hotbed with a population that practically has the game oozing out of its pores.
It's a community so enthralled and passionate about the sport that it would put many major Canadian cities to shame, with a hockey history as long and storied as the roads it takes to get there.
Welcome to Camrose, the little city that could where hockey rules all.
The elderly won't high-stick you with their canes and no one's ready to drop the gloves over a parking spot, but this city of 16,500 has an unparalleled love for hockey that dates back to before the 1960s.
According to LeRoy Johnson, the man responsible for partially planting the hockey seed in Camrose, a few different levels of the sport have had their turn in the spotlight over the past fifty-some years.
Senior hockey was big early on with the Camrose Maroons running the show until the late '60s, before the game took off at the college level while Johnson was the athletic director at Camrose Lutheran College (now Augustana University College).
Having started the Vikings hockey program at CLC in 1967, Johnson realized the game was beginning to thrive in the city at the college level, so he took it a step further and created an international tournament that first brought the hockey stars of tomorrow to Camrose.
Visiting Europe with the Vikings in the late 1970s, Johnson realized his love for international events,
laying the groundwork for the Viking Cup, which debuted in 1981.
"We invited a team from Sweden (AIK) and one from Finland (TPS) to come over and we played," said Johnson, adding that he drew inspiration for the weeklong late-December tournament from the Spengler Cup.
In addition to CLC, TPS – who won the inaugural championship – and AIK, the first year featured the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Prince Albert Raiders, Centennial College and Red Deer College, a rather inauspicious start for a tournament that has grown leaps and bounds since.
Now into its third decade, the Viking Cup was one of the first events to attract junior-aged players from the Soviet Union to Canada, it opened the eyes of NHL scouts who were now able to see international players compete in person and helped spark the affair Camrose has with hockey to this day.
"The foreign teams didn't speak the language, they brought their government officials along and they were pretty suspicious of everything,” Johnson said, “but we developed great relationships and it was good for our people here in Camrose because we billeted them as well. So it was not only a sport exchange, it was a cultural exchange as well and it was truly an awe-inspiring event both on and off the ice.”
In the 13 tournaments since its debut (it was held again in 1982 before moving to a biennial format) a number of significant NHLers have laced up the skates in Camrose.
Dominik Hasek, Sergei Zubov, Bobby Holik, Ziggy Palffy, Pavol Demitra, Tomas Vokoun, Olli Jokinen and Henrik Zetterberg are just a few of the more than 100 NHLers who chased the coveted Viking Cup in a tournament that would unknowingly lay the blueprint for future hockey success in Camrose.
Seeing how well the city responded to the tournament, the Camrose Sport Development Society brought a Junior A franchise to the city in 1997. Now into their 12th season in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, the Camrose Kodiaks have continued the city’s tradition of hockey excellence, adding a new chapter to the community's already impressive history book.
Led by head coach and general manager Boris Rybalka, the Kodiaks have claimed six division titles, four AJHL regular season championships, five AJHL playoff crowns, five Doyle Cups as B.C./Alberta champions and won the 2001 Royal Bank Cup as national Junior A champions.
"It's humbling when you look at the success we've had because it doesn't happen everyday," said Rybalka. "Obviously we've done something right."
The Kodiaks have established themselves as arguably Canada’s model Junior A franchise in their short history not only on the ice but off of it as well, with more than 50 alumni moving on to further their education through hockey.
Some have even taken the next step and moved on to pro careers, including 2008 NHL first-round pick Joe Colborne, a Boston selection, and Mason Raymond, who currently skates on the second line of the Vancouver Canucks.
Today, Camrose is home to the Edgeworth Centre, a brand-new multi-purpose arena that Rybalka calls a "miniature NHL arena." The rink will be home to the 2008 World Junior A Challenge, an event that certainly wouldn't have been possible without all the hockey groundwork laid in Camrose over the past 50 years.
"I think that's a big reason why the World Junior A Challenge was given to Camrose," said Rybalka. "They (Hockey Canada and the Canadian Junior Hockey League) knew what Camrose could do hosting a whole championship with the background in hosting an international event like the Viking Cup. Camrose just has a great community to host major events because of how supportive they are."
Next time you're cruising down Highway 13 in Central Alberta, don't even think about overlooking Camrose. Then again, if you're looking for a hockey community like no other, you were probably headed there already.
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