When your National Hockey League career produced 515 goals and over a point per game, it might be inconceivable to consider a minor hockey moment as one of your greatest memories as a player.
This would be especially true when your name annually garners consideration for induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame and your talents on the ice were so special at an early age that the Buffalo Sabres made you the first overall pick in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft.
But it’s quite the opposite for Pierre Turgeon, who admits one of his most vivid reflections and cherished moments of his career came when he was a teenager.
Born in the northwestern Quebec city of Rouyn-Noranda, Turgeon had left home only once up to the age of 16, although it wasn’t to play hockey but rather baseball in the 1982 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
His first opportunity to travel outside of his hometown for hockey came four years later and nearly three decades ago when he was invited to be part of a Quebec team that eventually captured a gold medal at the inaugural Quebec Esso Cup in 1986.
It was this fledgling tournament that provided a forum for young Canadian stars like Turgeon to experience their first international competition against countries like the United States, Soviet Union, Finland, Sweden and Czechoslovakia while also competing against four other regional teams from across Canada.
“What a great souvenir,” Turgeon said when asked to reflect on the experience that took him back 27 years ago. “It’s a great memory. Seeing the talent there was just amazing. We had just an unbelievable team. It was a lot of fun.”
Of course, the fun and easy recollection are always made more lucid when your team wins gold, as Turgeon’s Quebec entry did with a comeback victory over the Soviet Union in the final of that first tournament.
At the time, the event was just evolving and played every two years, exclusively in Quebec. That pattern began to change by the early 1990s as the event was moved around to different Canadian cities and eventually experienced a name change, becoming the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge in the mid-1990s.
According to Dave Fitzpatrick, who back in 1986 held the position of manager of the Program of Excellence with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association (now Hockey Canada), the tournament was designed as the first step of a three-tiered program to provide the five Canadian regional under-17 programs (Atlantic, Ontario, Quebec, Pacific and West) with their first taste of international competition.
From there, it quickly “gained the support of Canada’s member branches” and the event has never looked back.
In fact, that first tournament in 1986 was overwhelmingly well received in Quebec and particularly in Montreal. Many games were also played in venues to great fanfare outside of Montreal and up along the corridor to Quebec City.
“The attendance was simply remarkable,” said Fitzpatrick, who today works with the International Ice Hockey Federation as its sport director.
This year – the 20th version of the tournament – returns the event to its origins and the province of Quebec. Two cities, Victoriaville and Drummondville, will share dual hosting responsibilities and through the efforts of a solid host committee are excited to have the event return to La Belle Province for the first time since 1994.
It was the efforts of the volunteers on the first World Under-17 Hockey Challenge host committee and representatives from Hockey Quebec 28 years ago that Fitzpatrick admits allowed them to receive great accolades from both the international hockey community and Canadian regional branches.
“It took a great deal of time, energy, trust and commitment and passion (to organize it),” he said.
Hosting an event of this size, with 10 teams and 27 games scheduled to be played at this year’s event, is quite an undertaking, but the original tournament back in 1986 really provided a tangible schematic for how Hockey Canada-hosted tournaments are coordinated and organized today. In many respects, the inaugural Quebec Esso Cup’s success also translates to how hockey events around the world are conducted.
“The enthusiasm, the look, the feel, the quality of the game – all of these would meet today’s standards,” said Fitzpatrick. “But you also need to keep in mind that back then we used Teletype to correspond with many of the international member countries; email and mobile phones did not exist and the fax machine was not widely used.”
Still for Turgeon, regardless of how much time has passed and how technology has changed in how we disseminate information, nothing will erase the memory of that first tournament or the opportunity to tug that Canadian jersey over his head for the first time, even for a veteran of 1,294 NHL games with Buffalo, the New York Islanders, Montreal, St. Louis, Dallas and Colorado.
“Playing with the caliber of players you were playing with, you can’t ask for anything better,” he said, citing the Soviet Union’s Alexander Mogilny and Ontario’s Brendan Shanahan as two of the other future NHLers that also played in that first under-17 tournament.
“The feeling of stepping on the ice and playing against great countries was unbelievable. It was a phenomenal experience. It’s so exciting for the kids that have that opportunity again this year. And at the time, you don’t realize how big an impact that experience has on your career.”
Actually, we do.