Written by Dixon Ward, Vice President Okanagan Hockey Group
Happy New Year Everyone, hope that you all had a great holiday season with your family and friends. For hockey players, parents, and fans alike, this is always an exciting time of year. Welcome to the Okanagan Hockey blog. My name is Dixon Ward and I am the Vice-president of the Okanagan Hockey Group. Growing up in Leduc, AB as a son of school teachers, I developed a passion for hockey at a very young age. I also developed an appreciation for education as it was a very important part of our household.
I played all of my minor hockey in Alberta and went on to play Junior A in Red Deer before attending the University of North Dakota on a hockey scholarship. I was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks and after 4 years of University, where I obtained a degree in Journalism, I began my professional career. I was extremely fortunate to have a 12-year career as a professional and accumulated a tremendous amount of experiences along the way and played with, against and for some of the greatest people in the history of our game.
Upon retirement, I was afforded to opportunity to join Okanagan Hockey and spend my time coaching, teaching, and developing student-athletes. Over the past 15 years, I have learned so much about the game, the kids, the process, and the families involved in hockey, that I wanted the ability to share some of this experience with as many people as possible. It is not easy to navigate the world of hockey and it can be a very confusing process for families of young players. It can also be the best of experiences if there is an understanding of what is truly important and what is valuable to the pursuit of Human Performance for all of our kids.
I am excited to get started in communicating with all of you and making sure that Okanagan Hockey provides all of you with the information that you can trust.
Congratulations to Canada for winning its 18th World Junior Championship. This tournament never fails to provide us with unique storylines and has provided hockey fans with some magical memories over the years. Three gold medals for Canada in the last six years is impressive, although it also speaks to the growth of the game and parity between countries. Russians, Fins, Swedes, Czech’s and the United States are now all capable of beating the Canadians on any given day. That is great for the game and its growth around the globe. Hockey is alive and well all over the world and it was heartwarming to see so many passionate fans watching the games.
Winning in Europe for the first time since 2008 did prove once again that Team Canada’s DNA is one of character and perseverance, our hockey players' greatest gifts. No one exemplified that more than Captain Barrett Hayton. He proved in this tournament that redemption is part of the learning process. In pool play, by not taking off his helmet during the postgame playing of the Russian national anthem, following the most lopsided loss in Canadian World Junior history, Hayton showed some bad judgment. We all make mistakes growing up and truthfully it is the lessons learned after the fact that mean so much more to us as hockey players and human beings. Being accountable after and taking responsibility for his actions, Hayton showed maturity and great leadership. He stood up and took charge after that misstep and helped his team claim gold. Playing hurt in the final after being drilled into the boards the game before was Bobby Baun’esq and all I can say about that is “Way to go kid!”.
A couple of final thoughts on the tournament. Congratulations to our Canadian Sport School Hockey League alumni who did an outstanding job in the Czech Republic. Joel Hofer made 35 saves in the final to cap off a spectacular tournament. He finished as the World Juniors as the leader in wins (5), goals-against average (1.60), save percentage (.939), was named Top Goalie and an All-Star. Team Canada’s backend was anchored by three stellar CSSHL alumni: Jacob Bernard-Docker, Bowen Byram, and Ty Smith. Upfront, Dylan Cozens was a force and Canada’s third-leading scorer with two goals and seven assists. High fives to all five guys but let’s remember, we should never lose sight of is that these players are young and turning them into celebrities because of World Junior success is not healthy long term.
The Battle of Alberta is back in a big way. The Matthew Tkachuk – Zack Kassian feud absolutely reignited the fan bases in both Calgary and Edmonton, which is great for hockey in the west. As a Leduc boy, I know that bad blood between these two franchises runs as deep as Alberta crude, which should provide some great theatre later this month when these two teams face off twice in the span of a few days. To recap, in case you live under a rock, after two huge hits by Tkachuk, Kassian snapped and took matters into his own hands. He grabbed Tkachuk by the collar, ragdolls him to the ice, and then hammered away with punches. Tkachuk didn’t respond or drop his gloves, and Kassian ended up with a two-game suspension.
Both these players are warriors and in my book, warriors never disappoint. You can’t succeed in this game without using emotion. Walking that fine line and playing with an edge goes such a long way. Personally, I wish they would settle their differences on the ice and not in the media, social or traditional. For the record, Kassian said he wouldn’t change the way he handled things. After speaking with the Department of Player Safety Head George Parros on the phone, Kassian told reporters “After speaking with Parros he explained how the hit is not dirty, so that cleared up a lot of things. It gave me some clarity on what you can and can’t do now. So, I put that in the memory bank”.
Kassian is having a solid season and has come such a long way both professionally and personally. He has battled and conquered his addictions, again showing that Canadian hockey DNA of character and perseverance I mentioned above. Tkachuk, a hard-nosed competitor since he joined the league, was put in a bad spot and went into survival mode by covering up. Although there are more than a few hockey people out there who echo Kassian’s sentiments that “if you are going to play big-boy hockey, you’ve got to answer the bell”, Tkachuk didn’t have much chance to respond in this situation. Knowing the Tkachuk pedigree, I’m sure this is not over yet.
With neither side backing down, this rivalry is alive and well. Hockey fans, circle January 29th on your calendar. That’s the night the Flames pay a visit to Edmonton to face the Oilers again. Who knows if it will live up the hype, but there will be a lot of passion and pride on display. If you are in the Alberta capital, look for a Matthew Tkachuk billboard in the city. A Flames fan GoFundMe campaign has hit its goal to cover the cost of putting public enemy number one on display in enemy territory. Gotta love the Battle of Alberta!
I also want to include a little about my own travels for the last 10 days. I was fortunate to be invited back to Buffalo to participate in the Sabres 50th anniversary. Being back in Buffalo after 17 years away was an amazing experience. Seeing everyone including former teammates, trainers, staff, and fans was something I will never forget. Thank you, Sabres.
Following my weekend in Buffalo, I ventured up to Toronto to visit our Okanagan Hockey Ontario program and see what a great job the program is doing for the young student/athletes there. While in Toronto, I had the opportunity to visit with my oldest childhood friend, Dave Hakstol, now the assistant coach of the Maple Leafs. As a Leaf alumnus, I was excited to go and watch the Leafs-Jets game and it did not disappoint. The sheer talent on display from both teams was amazing and energy around the city of Toronto and the Maple Leafs is awesome.
From Toronto, I headed to my alma mater, the University of North Dakota. My Son, who plays at the University of Nebraska Omaha, was in North Dakota for a 2 game series. The weekend ended perfectly with each team winning a game. For anyone who hasn’t seen a college hockey game in North Dakota, put it on your bucket list.
On my flight home, I thought back on all the experiences that I had as a player in North Dakota, Toronto and Buffalo, and came to a surprising conclusion. I didn’t remember the days I was on the power play or the days I wasn’t, I didn’t remember how many goals I scored or how many times I was a healthy scratch. I didn’t remember the injuries or bad days. I only thought about the people that came into my life through the game of hockey and how much of an influence they had on my life. The lifelong friendships that this awesome game gives us cannot be replaced. For all of us involved in this game, please remember that we owe this game, and the people involved in it, the respect it deserves. Value the experiences and relationships that hockey provides because, at some point, those relationships will become more important than any success you have on the ice.
My time at OHA taught me what it means to be an elite athlete both on and off the ice. It is a big reason I am the player, I am today."