Bob Wilkie knew yesterday would be emotional.
What he didn't know was that the tears flowing would be those of his players.
In the midst of a Calgary homecoming that coincides with the 20th anniversary of a bus crash that killed four of his Swift Current Broncos teammates, the former Calgary Buffaloes defenceman finds himself in the middle of a Mac's midget tournament controversy that has shattered two kids hockey dreams.
Arriving in town Christmas day with a second-year squad from Hershey, Pa., he coaches, Wilkie was shocked when tourney organizers told him hours before their first game they had four ineligible players. Due to a one-year discrepancy between the Canadian and American midget age guidelines, two skaters and both goalies from the Medallion Generals were told they couldn't play until a last-minute compromise allowed the netminders to suit up.
"My heart was broken," said captain Eric Rutz. "That was my first time leaving my family at Christmas and to come all this way for nothing is hard. I feel bad for Bob because it was a homecoming and we really wanted it to be a drama-free trip for him but it turned out to be the opposite."
Forward Chad Weiss said it has been hard to hold back tears on a number of occasions, something his father couldn't do last night.
"This is all he's talked about -- he called me every day to make sure I was coming," said Steve Weiss, who came from Maryland to watch Chad sit in the stands."You never know who could see you out here. This is the best and if you can play with the best they might write down a number or something and give him a shot at his dream."
The Medallions dedicated the tourney to Wilkie's four fallen teammates and are here thanks to a $35,000 donation from Calgary businessman Jeff Colvin. All that has been dampened now.
"The Mac's holds a special place in my heart -- this is such an unfortunate incident," explained Wilkie, honoured before last night's game against the Buffaloes by the Buffaloes with whom he won the Mac's in 1984.
"I understand they have rules and the bottom line is we dropped the ball and they dropped the ball. But it's not about me and it's not about them. It's about the kids. To see them go through these emotions is the worst thing in the world for me. We submitted our roster a month ago, didn't hear from anybody and figured there'd be no problem. Why would we bring four 1988's (birth year) halfway across North America to try and plead a case and hope they would get to play?"
Up until three years ago the Mac's tourney did allow U.S. 'overagers' as long as they were 17 before July 1, as outlined by U.S. rules. The U.S. has since bumped their midget age limit a full year older than Canada's, prompting the Mac's to start enforcing their Canadian age restrictions. Thus, no more Shattuck-St. Mary's.
"We're not blaming anybody but at the end of the day we did communicate that we follow the Canadian age guidelines," said tourney chairman Neil Robertson, who tried soothing Wilkie's crew with scholarship money and Flames tickets.
"We were trying to make a good experience out of a bad situation. I want them here, I want them to enjoy the experience and I want them back. This is a great story to have them here with an alumnus as coach. We believe we're very clear but the lesson learned here is that there are always ways to communicate better."