The league leaders in the Westman High School Hockey League will be tested against the top teams in Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario this week.
The 22nd annual Victoria Inn High School Hockey Tournament hits the ice on Thursday afternoon as 24 teams play 57 games over four days at Westman Place, the Sportsplex, Kinsmen and Optimist arenas in what organizers believe is one of the biggest tournaments of its kind.
"No matter where we poked around looking for tournaments to go to in the U.S. and Canada, we have never found one this big," said tournament chairperson Peter Gerlinger, who also serves as head coach of the Crocus Plainsmen. "So we think, from our knowledge, it’s the biggest (high school hockey) tournament in Canada. And as there has been for every year that I have been a part of it, there is a waiting list again and we’re very fortunate because everyone likes to come to this tournament."
The tournament will feature the top five teams in the Westman league, led by the first-place Dauphin Clippers, defending champion Neepawa Tigers, Plainsmen, Vincent Massey Vikings and Russell’s Major Pratt Trojans, along with the Virden Golden Bears.
They will face a field that includes the St. John’s Ravenscourt Eagles — the No.1 team in the Winnipeg High School Hockey League — along with the defending tournament champion Oak Park Raiders, and four Ontario teams from Fort Francis, Dryden, Red Lake and Kenora.
"It’s a great way to compare with the Winnipeg high school league and (southeastern Manitoba’s) Zone 4 League and the Ontario teams. They are loyal customers and they always make their way out here," Gerlinger said. "We have four Ontario teams, four Zone 4s, six Westman and 10 Winnipeg teams. So definitely it’s a real tradition for everybody coming here and most of these teams have been here year after year …
"All those Winnipeg teams are good. We have five that are in the top division that are coming to our tournament, so you are going to have your hands full."
The tournament serves as a potential provincials preview for the Westman teams, as they get their first look at the quality of competition they could face later this season in the high school championships.
"When I look at it from our point of view and our league’s point of view, if one of us is going to represent the league in provincials, this is a great way to measure up," said Gerlinger, whose Plainsmen advanced to the provincial final four last season. "You play mainly within your own league and we haven’t ventured anywhere outside our own league yet this year, so for us it will be a real eye-opener, especially when you have a young team like we and Massey both have."
The tournament opens Thursday at 4 p.m., with the Clippers hitting the ice at the Optimist Arena and the Vikings dropping the puck at the Kinsmen Arena. It runs all day Friday and Saturday through to Sunday’s championship final at the Kinsmen at 3 p.m. Admission is free to all games this year.