What’s old is new when it comes to the Young Stars Classic.
The Vancouver Canucks and the city of Penticton are bringing the prospects tournament back to life this coming September after a four-year hiatus.
There’s lots familiar about the setup. The rink, the South Okanagan Events Centre, and its staff knows well what NHL teams want.
So do the hotels and the caterers and the shops in town and so on and so on.
But when it’s been four years and there’s been a pandemic, any institutional knowledge is a big help.
“When you’ve been away from anything over the last couple years, you want to make sure you’re not missing out on anything, from the teams that are coming in, to ticket sales, the referees, anything,” Canucks vice-president Stan Smyl said Wednesday from Penticton.
He was joined by Penticton mayor John Vassilaki for a public ceremony confirming the schedule and community details for September’s Young Stars return.
And to that end, a familiar face is in the mix to help coordinate between team and city: Jonathan Wall. Until last December, when team owner Francesco Aquilini decided to push him out the door as part of a slew of front-office changes, Wall had been the Canucks’ senior director of hockey operations and analytics.
One of the many hats Wall had worn over the years had been coordinating the Young Stars Classic prospects tournament, which ran for nine instalments, from 2010 to 2018.
Wall has taken on a new career as a Penticton-based, South Okanagan-focused real estate advisor since his time with the Canucks ended.
But with the Young Stars being revived, both Smyl and the city of Penticton felt that Wall would be a key asset in re-starting the cold engines of the classic.
“The city approached him too, to work it on their side. We want to make (the tournament) as enjoyable as possible. When you have the knowledge that he has, you can ask the questions of what he might know,” Smyl explained.
For his part, Wall said he was delighted to be asked to help out with this event again.
“It meant a lot to me that both sides felt comfortable having me help out, working with Stan and the group in Vancouver and the great group in Penticton,” Wall said Wednesday.
“This tournament was something I cared so much about, I was part of the group that brought it together originally. And I fell in love with the area, the Okanagan, and moved here with my family and found a new base.
“But it’s not about me, it’s about bringing this event back,” he added. “They really pushed to get it back going, I just happened to be available.”
The Canucks and the city confirmed the tournament schedule Wednesday. The tournament, which runs Sept. 16 – 19, will feature prospect teams from the Canucks, the Calgary Flames, the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets.
“It’s always been so positive, from the players, the management, the coaches and more importantly the fans, supporting such a great tournament. It’s a great opportunity to team build your organization, where you have three, four days, not just to discuss and watch your players, it’s a chance to meet with your staff, your coaches.
“We’ve brought our whole amateur staff in in the past,” Smyl said.
Smyl said hosting a prospects tournament was one of the first things president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford and general manager Patrik Allvin asked Smyl about when they were hired mid-season.
Vassilaki said he was delighted to welcome fans back to Penticton and thrilled about the return of a tournament that has featured the professional debuts of the likes of Elias Pettersson, Bo Horvat and Connor McDavid.
“Penticton is a place where the future of hockey gets their start. The Young Stars is an event that celebrates that tradition, bringing energy to the city and marks the beginning of hockey season,” he said in a speech to the gathered audience.
Wall said the South Okanagan Events Centre is a “world-class venue,” pointing to the two sheets of ice, allowing the teams to not only play games but hold plenty of practices, as well as use the banquets halls on-site for team catering and more.
He added that because so much of the staff at the arena were around during the first decade of the event, it was little trouble getting things organized for the re-launch.
“It’s a testament to the venue and the people,” he said.
And of course the fan interest was always there.
“There’s some stuff we have to do to get it back going but the appetite is still here,” Wall said. “There’s still the huge fanbase of all the teams here, we’re stepping back in at the right time.”
In addition to the six games — two per day, Friday, Saturday and Sunday — there were will be a series of community events around the tournament. Canucks assistant general manager Cammi Granato will host a community hockey talk the day before the tournament starts. There will be a minor hockey skills event as well as party on the plaza on the weekend.
“We’ve always tried to make it a celebration for the weekend,” Wall said. “The chance to add the Cammi talk this year was a great opportunity to engage with the community. What an opportunity to engage with someone like her, an Olympian, a hockey hall of famer, someone who knows hockey.”
The hiatus in 2019 was due to, variably, a lack of prospects in the system as well as the idea to try something different with the organization’s youngest players. There was a worry that playing such a busy schedule right out of the box, then sending their young players to the NHL training camp, put too much of a strain on their prospects.
The Canucks had planned to revive the event for 2020, but the pandemic put a stop to those plans and then ongoing uncertainty as the spring of 2021 progressed kept last year out of the cards too.
But Smyl said the they decided that the positives of getting the young players into the Canucks’ fold for a week before main camp far outweighed any negatives. A modern NHL training camp is just a couple days, for a young player who is hoping to win a spot in the NHL one day, they deserve to get a little more guidance ahead of that.
“We run the games like they’re real games, they’re really important games to the players. It really creates the real environment for the players,” Wall added about the tournament’s setup.
You want to empower your players, Smyl said, give them as much information on how everything works, on what a player can do for themselves to get to their ultimate goal.
“I think right from our prospect camp in the summer, just to get them introduced into our program what to expect from our organization and then coming here (to Young Stars) it really hammers things home. You want to make them feel comfortable as possible, with the systems that the Vancouver Canucks are going to play,” he said.
“Just that comfort going into the big NHL camp, that player knowing the system, we’re trying to provide as much as possible that the player gets to go out and play his game. I think that’s been missing the last couple years.”
The Canucks’ team this September will likely feature the likes of newly-signed Linus Karlsson and some younger players from Abbotsford, Smyl said.
He also added that other teams had expressed interest in playing in Penticton but weren’t yet in a position to consider it again. He indicated that the Canucks intend to hold the tournament on an annual basis.
Vassilaki, who is up for re-election this fall, said he was hopeful the Seattle Kraken would join in coming seasons.
“Our team and Stan’s team is getting together and we’re going to grow immensely in the future. And we’re going to be here for many years to come,” he said.
YOUNG STARS CLASSIC SCHEDULE
All games at South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton
|Game 1||Winnipeg vs Calgary||Fri, Sept. 16||4:00pm PT|
|Game 2||Edmonton vs Vancouver||Fri, Sept. 16||7:30pm PT|
|Game 3||Calgary vs Edmonton||Sat, Sept. 17||7:30pm PT|
|Game 4||Vancouver vs Winnipeg||Sun, Sept. 18||2:00pm PT|
|Game 5||Winnipeg vs Edmonton||Mon, Sept. 19||11:00am PT|
|Game 6||Vancouver vs Calgary||Mon, Sept. 19||2:30pm PT|