Trial by Fire, Triumph on Ice: Kelowna Hosts the 2004 Memorial Cup

Originally published in Prospects Hockey in 2004

By Lucas Aykroyd

Hollywood movies like The Towering Inferno and Backdraft are as close as many of us ever come to confronting a fire raging out of control. But for the citizens of Kelowna, the sight of homes and forests ablaze became a terrifying reality in the late summer of 2003. Although saving lives and property certainly took priority over sporting concerns, you could have been forgiven for wondering if the 2004 MasterCard Memorial Cup would be able to go forward in the wake of this devastation.

By now, that question has been clearly answered. Fans, media, NHL hockey celebrities, and some of the CHL’s brightest young talents will descend upon BC’s third-largest city to celebrate the quest for national junior hockey supremacy from May 15 to 23. But part of the healing process is being able to put into words what happened starting after a single lightning strike near Lake Okanagan on the morning of August 16, 2003.

“It was just like a bad dream,” said Paul Mitchell, a Kelowna lawyer and the Chair of the 2004 Memorial Cup Society. “A couple of times, I had to pinch myself: ‘This can’t be happening.’ It was beyond belief. We had a lot of tragedies in terms of property damage, but luckily nobody was killed. When you’ve got 35,000 people evacuated, everyone was either evacuated personally or they had someone in their home they were looking after.”

Close to 250 Kelowna-area homes were destroyed, along with 26,000 hectares of forest and 12 of the 18 historic Kettle Valley Railway trestles. When the flames reached the city of 100,000 inhabitants on August 22, it was the most daunting challenge the Kelowna Fire Department had ever faced, as fire chief Gerry Zimmermann vividly recalls.

“We had people trapped,” said Zimmermann. “We had houses burning up. We had flames 300 or 400 feet high. At one point we had some of our firefighters phoning their wives and saying goodbye. So it was an emotional night, but we got through it. We thought we were going to lose a good part of the city, but we ended up overcoming it, and I’m very proud of that.”

Zimmermann’s leadership at the time has since been compared to that of New York mayor Rudy Giuliani after the 9/11 attacks. But he was far from the only hero. Some 700 firefighters, including 350 members of the military, participated in the battle against BC’s worst-ever forest fire along with police, emergency workers, heavy equipment operators, bomber and helicopter pilots, and regular citizens.

Holding training camp under these conditions wasn’t easy for the Kelowna Rockets. It was a sharp reminder that there are more important things in life than defending a WHL championship. For head coach Marc Habscheid, this was a bigger challenge than anything he’d faced since committing to shepherd the team through the season leading up to the Memorial Cup.

“We spoke to the players about the fires to keep them aware,” Habscheid recalled. “It was such a public thing that everyone pretty much knew what was going on, and it was important to be respectful of that. It was a difficult time, because minds were elsewhere. You could smell the smoke in the air, and it was a distraction. But we still had to go on with our training camp. It was something for our players to see in terms of how courageous everybody was.”

Like their community, the Rockets were galvanized to pull together, enjoying a remarkable 2003-04 campaign. The spirit of success propelled the recruitment of Memorial Cup volunteers, according to Paul Mitchell: “We had to take the volunteer online registration form off our web site because we just got overloaded with people wanting to help. We cut it off at 800.”

From the efforts of Rockets chairman Bruce Hamilton and his staff since Day One to the Prospera Place management that waived the $175,000 it would normally have cost to use the arena for the tournament, this has become a community event at every level.

With more than 30 events scheduled in addition to the hockey games–five times as many as at any previous MasterCard Memorial Cup–the tournament will provide everyone with different revitalizing options. The contrast from last summer will be welcome.

Instead of helicopters dipping buckets into swimming pools to douse burning buildings with water, it’ll be guests sipping the Okanagan’s best vintages at the Memorial Cup banquet and at local winery tours.

Instead of the howl of fire engine sirens, it’ll be cheers from the 6,407 spectators inside Prospera Place and 1,000 more watching the games on a giant screen in the festival tent outside, mingling with the upbeat sounds of local bands and other entertainers.

Instead of tears from distraught fire victims, it’ll be a chance for children to smile as they, enjoy the opening parade, tour the Hockey Hall of Fame exhibit, play games at the Sony PlayStation truck, and watch the Snowbirds performing acrobatics against a blue sky.

That’s only scratching the surface. Whether it’s a golf tournament, comedy night, symphony, play, or outdoor expedition, each opportunity will highlight why scenic Kelowna has become a major holiday destination for tourists from around the world.

“Without a doubt, this is the biggest event ever to hit this city,” said Paul Mitchell. “We want the world to know that the fires are behind us and we’ve got a lot to offer. We’re open for business. In my opinion, this is the best place in Canada to vacation.”

“It will be very intense for our hockey team, because the tournament’s being held here in Kelowna and we’re participating,” added Marc Habscheid. “I’m sure the interest will be at a fever pitch. It’ll be good for our city and our community.”

Now it’s up to the Rockets to see if they can provide a true Hollywood ending on the ice in front of their loyal Kelowna fans and millions of SportsNet viewers. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

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