EDMONTON - The e-mail came from Edmonton Mayor Steven Mandel the day after the world junior tournament began.
The mayor wanted to know if anything could be done to move one of the medal-round games from Calgary to Edmonton.
“Hopefully the mayor was just fooling around and that he just forgot he was in a couple of meetings with me where we established Edmonton was going to take the guaranteed five Canadian games,” laughed Lyle Best, the Edmonton Order of Canada recipient who had the exceptional experience of being co-chairman of the event.
So, uh, no. This is it.
The Edmonton end of the most ballistic of all Canadian world junior tournaments is over as the remainder of the tournament opens the New Year in Calgary with the medal round and a likely Canada-Russia semifinal Tuesday.
But Best says the intention is to bid for the event again in 2017 and run the tournament in reverse with the Canada round-robin games in Calgary and the medal round in Edmonton’s new $450-million, state-of-the-art downtown arena, complete with a party in the surrounding entertainment district.
“It was always the plan. Next time let’s let Calgary have the Canadian games in the round robin and we’ll watch the other group and wait with anticipation for the medal round to get here,” said Best.
“That’s when the downtown arena district will show itself.”
Prior to the USA-Canada New Year’s Eve game, Hockey Canada president and CEO Bob Nicholson held a press conference to praise the Edmonton organizing committee.
Selling out 16,647 seats in three days a year ago was mind-blowing, but he said filling them was another.
“Edmonton had more than 80% of the seats filled,” he said. “That was absolutely amazing.”
Best said there was a vision back when he made the bid.
“It was exactly what I dreamed it would be like. Sometimes dreams come true.
“I know there was a point where they looked at me and thought I was smoking some crack or something. But I envisioned a best-ever and I’ve been to the last four and this was better than the last four.”
In the meantime, Best heads to Calgary with the international shinny show to enjoy the rest of the tournament with some stories to tell co-chairman Jim Peplinski and friends.
The two cities are wowing the hockey world but Best said there were some bizarre bits of business behind the scenes. And this one was at times almost slapstick before it ended up ballistic.
There was the French public address system international incident in waiting, for example.
Best will be telling that story for years.
It unraveled at the Sweden-Canada pre-tournament game when it sounded like the required second-language French announcements were being made by either late former prime minister John Diefenbaker or Joe Clark.
The two Edmonton Oilers’ P.A. announcers Al Stafford and Mark Lewis took on the same duties for the world junior with Stafford doing the English call and Lewis the French.
“I asked Mark about it when we were planning and he said he was fluently bilingual. And he does own Cafe de Ville. But then when the game came he opened his mouth and removed all doubt. It put the eye, yi, yi in my i-phone. I’ve never had so many messages as during that game.”
There were unusual organizing problems including the one involving the elevator used by coaches, officials and media.
“Somehow the security people were allowing people to go up the elevators but not down. I’d never heard of one-way elevators before,” said Best.
Any of the hassles and challenges were minimal compared to the payoffs he said.
And what payoffs!
The 50-50 draws produced staggering payouts and raised remarkable amounts for the Hockey Canada Foundation.
“This is the best ever thing I ever volunteered for,” said long-time QuikCard Minor Hockey Week organizer Joan Kirillo, who was recruited by Best as chairman of special events.
“It’s been fun. I’ve been handing people big, big money all week.”
One of the big winners, taking a cheque home for $84,642.50, was Los Angeles Kings head scout Michael Futa.
“One of my favorite winners was Daniel Carter of Sherwood Park who got a ticket to go to the game at the last minute when a friend invited him. He won $66,890 and gave half to his friend.
“Adam McKale won $87,480 and is expecting a new baby. Jennifer Brown won $46,020 and got engaged this week.
The USA-Canada New Year’s Eve game paid a whopping $146,140 won by Michael Labrie of Edmonton and the number couldn’t be announced until well after the game on the Hockey Canada website.
“You need dozens of printers to print out the tickets, one for each number, to hold the draw. We had three Alberta gaming officials supervising and at one point we were 95 minutes behind the selling in the printing,” he exclaimed.
“It would have been so cool to bring the winner down to the ice and present the cheque,” said Best.
“My goal was $1 million in gross sales and we hit that Friday,” she said of the Edmonton total, which ended up at $1.43 million gross.
If that doesn’t compute, understand that it was over a million more than the $314,047 Calgary totalled for the 50/50 over the same number of games.
The money raised is earmarked by Hockey Canada to fund under-privileged kids with the equipment and opportunity to play minor hockey.
Another legacy of the hosting, which carried over to Calgary in an even bigger way — because of the number of games there with only two involving Canada in the medal rounds — was the program to convince fans who bought ticket packages but weren’t planning to go to all games, to turn the unused ones back to be given to youth groups and the under-privileged.
“When I pitched the bid with the idea of the returning of unused tickets, I don’t think they believed it,” said Best.
“But I’d been to the five previous world juniors. And I’d seen the incredible number of empty seats, even in some very small secondary venues, for the games despite those tickets having been sold. In Ottawa they were about one third full for some games.
“One of our goals was to make this a huge experience for all the players from all the nations. We wanted the players to experience full buildings. And we haven’t had much less than 13,000 for any game in either city. I was really proud of the crowds we had in Edmonton to watch those kids from Denmark.”
Best contacted Jay Ball of Edmonton to head the project in both cities and the two co-chairmen were both paid off with a memory moment here.
“Jay called me and asked if Jim Peplinski and I would like to join him in a suite which had been donated for one game where he had eight kids from the youth emergency shelter. We brought them some of our gifting bags. Bob Black of Rexall Sports signed off on the food services bill for the kids.
“One of the kids came wearing a Calgary Flames jersey. He was about 15 and his eyes just about popped out when Peplinski walked in.
“Peplinski took his Stanley Cup ring off his finger and said ‘Hold this for me for a few minutes, kid.’ And gave him a ‘Pep’ talk.”
In the end, Best said there was more satisfaction this past month from co-chairing this event than the roles he played in the Heritage Classic, Canadian Finals Rodeo, World Triathlon, forming the Copper Jackets with Bill Hunter, heading the Oilers Charity Foundation, sponsoring Minor Hockey Week or anything else involved in winning the Order of Canada.
“Of all the stuff I’ve done in Edmonton, this has been the most times I’ve had people come up to me and say ‘Thanks for doing this.’ ”
And he believes the legacy might be massive.
“It’s just been spectacular,” he said of working with Peplinski in the first Edmonton-Calgary hosting of a major event.
“I think it’s a real lesson in Alberta working together. It can be pretty awesome when you put Edmonton and Calgary together.”
Would he consider doing it again, when the roles are reversed with a new downtown Edmonton arena in 2017?
“Yeah, absolutely. It’s one of the most fun things I’ve ever done. And it combined my two passions in life, hockey and charity.”