ST. MALO -- In the jubilant moments after the Richmond Sockeyes dispatched the Saskatoon Royals in a 5-2 rout, the victors gathered in the middle of St. Malo Arena ice to hoist the Keystone Cup.
It's a little smaller rink than the British Columbia team is used to, and St. Malo is a cosier town than usually hosts the western Canadian junior B tournament. But the spirit of the thing, well, that was just huge. "The volunteers here were absolutely awesome," Sockeyes general manager Richard Petrowski said on Sunday afternoon, as his team celebrated the defence of their championship. "We would come back anytime."
That's the small-town spirit organizers were counting on when they first bid to host the four-day tournament, which featured six teams from Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario, Manitoba and the host St. Malo Warriors. It may have seemed a long shot -- in 2011, St. Malo Arena had to add dressing rooms just to get it up to Keystone Cup regulations -- but organizers believed the hockey-mad resort town on the edge of Saint-Malo Provincial Park could offer a special spark.
They were right: Each day, up to 500 people came out to watch one or more of the tournament's 19 total games, a robust turnout.
The hometown Warriors didn't do so well, dropping all of their five games, but locals came to cheer other teams just the same. Partly, the local fans turned out to cheer the Peguis Juniors, who lost to the Alberta Okotoks Bisons in Sunday morning's bronze-medal game. Mostly, they came out just to cheer for hockey. For the game.
"The whole tournament exceeded our expectations," said organizing committee co-chair Moe Gosselin, who paused as a staff member from the visiting Bisons stopped to vigorously shake his hand. "Everything we've heard has been positive. People keep coming up to us, stopping us to say thank you... I don't think people had any idea it was going to be this big."
Consider: Only about 1,000 people live in St. Malo, which is located about 45 minutes south of Winnipeg on Hwy. 59. Two hundred of them volunteered at the Keystone Cup, helping clean up litter, host the hospitality suite or sell tickets at the door.
"I think everyone's excited to have so many people here," said volunteer Shanna Berard, as she playfully swung her year-old son behind the Keystone Cup merchandise booth. Behind her, a photo of St. Malo son and New York Islander Travis Hamonic hung lovingly on the wall. "We like to show off how tight-knit we are."
And, of course, how much they love the sport. Gosselin, 37, grew up in St. Malo and now commutes to work there every day: Like most kids in the community, he grew up playing hockey, and went to the western Canadian championship twice with the local team. Many of his friends met their future wives at Warriors games.
Those were the memories Gosselin and other organizers paid tribute to, when they pushed to bring the tournament to their home.
"This is such a little hockey hotbed," Gosselin said. "Growing up, that's all we did. For us, getting the Keystone Cup was a chance to give back... it's such a special thing."