The Alberta Cup is an opportunity to focus on highly competitive hockey in a short tournament, giving everyone involved a venue in which to forge team bonds and to learn and grow. It remains a core development program for Hockey Alberta, and it’s not limited to just the players — coaches, therapists, equipment managers, sport administrators and referees benefit as well.
The first Alberta Cup, held in 1986 in Edmonton, was a program for midget-aged hockey players. Serge Lajoie, who is now head coach of the University of Alberta Golden Bears and part of the Team Alberta program, played for the Northeast team in that event.
“The tournament was played in the Agricom and it was my first time playing in a big venue, in front of bigger crowds. We lost in the final to one of the Calgary teams,” Lajoie remembers.
On the winning Calgary South squad in that final was Jamie Steer. “I am one of 20 players and six staff who can say we won the first-ever Alberta Cup,” says Steer, who was later drafted by the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, had a 10-year pro career and is now the operations coordinator for Okotoks Minor Hockey. “I still see many of my teammates who were on the team.”
Three years after that first event, the Alberta Cup went on hiatus. The event re-emerged in 1993 as a bantam- aged competition, this time taking place in Calgary.
“It came back in order to prepare the group for the 1995 Canada Winter Games, which were held in Grande Prairie,” says Tim Leer, former senior manager of hockey development with Hockey Alberta. “In 1993, it gave Alberta a two-year progressive development model to prepare for the Canada Winter Games. It has remained a bantam-age event since.”
For many players, the Alberta Cup has been the ultimate measuring stick.
“One thing it did was give me a perspective of where I was,” Steer says. “I knew I needed to get better to keep playing. It was a kick in the butt to get working. I’m not saying that tournament made my career, but it was one of the many things that pointed me in the right direction.”
For Chris Leinweber, playing in the 1996 Alberta Cup put him on the provincial stage. “The Alberta Cup made me realize what I needed to do and how I needed to improve if I wanted to continue my hockey career at a high level,” Leinweber says. “I was lucky enough to make it through the process a little bit further and was one of the last cuts for Team Alberta — so I was able to play against the best players in Alberta.”
The Alberta Cup can act as a springboard not only for players, but for coaches as well.
“The first time I applied, I was coaching Bantam A in Onoway and I never thought I’d even have a chance to be a part of it, “ says Barry Medori, now Hockey Alberta’s high performance coach mentor. “I heard it was a good opportunity and went and applied. I ended up becoming a head coach the first year.”
Medori would go on to coach in the Alberta Junior Hockey League and now works with some of Alberta’s top up-and-coming coaches.
Along with all the tangible benefits, one of the greatest things about the Alberta Cup is its ability to create lasting memories.
“We had these two guys, Jared Carli and Jordin Tootoo, on the team,” Medori recalls. “We did a team-builder called ‘climb the mountain.’ Jordin had a brand new stick, and Jared, who was over 200 pounds, stepped on Jordin’s new stick and snapped it in half.”
Obviously, Tootoo got another stick. He’s currently in his 13th professional season, his second with the NHL’s New Jersey Devils after stints with the Nashville Predators and Detroit Red Wings.
Steer recalls the thrill of playing in a big-league rink. “I remember getting to play at Northlands Coliseum, where the Oilers played, for the semi-final and how good the ice was,” Steer says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’m in a conversation about the event and I get to bring up some trivia: ‘Do you know who won the first ever Alberta Cup?’ My smile gives them the answer right away.”
“I think what stands out the most, is the friendships I made,” Leinweber says. “After the tournament finished, it was fun to follow everyone else’s career and where they played. Throughout the competition you make many lasting friendships, which is what I cherish the most. To this day I still keep in contact with some teammates from that team.”
Adds Lajoie: “It was a great experience. It set me on a hockey journey that allowed me to live extraordinary playing and coaching experiences throughout North America and in Europe, and I’ll always cherish the friendships that were made during that week.”