For 60 years, the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament has meant as much to its home city as the kids who played in it. Just ask the ones who went on to the NHL.

For two decades, the Colisée stood as the last bastion of on-ice glory in Quebec City.

It was within these walls that the provincial capital salvaged its love of the game in the late ’90s. In the forced absence of the NHL’s Nordiques, the Colisée’s other prime inhabitant — the Tournoi International de Hockey Pee-wee de Québec — took centre stage, and held it until a more glamorous rink came along in 2015.

Dating back to 1960, the hallowed pee-wee tournament has been a seminal stop on the paths of some of hockey’s greatest talents. Guy Lafleur suited up for three iterations of the tourney in its first years of operation. Wayne Gretzky came through the Colisée with Brantford’s squad in ’74. A few years later, the famed ’77 tournament pitted eventual Hall of Famers Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman and Patrick Roy against one another.

Early on, the tournament served simply as part of the Carnaval de Québec. Today, squads from as far as Australia and South Korea have made the trek for the 2020 iteration, which started Feb. 12.

“If the people who started the tournament 61 years ago were still alive, I think they would be pretty proud of us,” says Patrick Dom, who’s served as the tournament’s general manager for nearly three decades. “When they started in 1960, there were 32 teams from two countries, Canada and the U.S. Sixty-one years later, we’ve got over 120 teams, more than 2,000 players from 20 countries. It’s just unbelievable.”

And just as The Great One and Le Magnifique ran the famed gauntlet of the pee-wee tournament, so too did many of today’s NHL elite. Go back one decade and you’ll find Auston Matthews and Matthew Tkachuk on the list of participants. One year further and you’ll see Connor McDavid and William Nylander pop up.

Six decades in, the pee-wee tournament remains Quebec’s most enduring contribution to NHL lore — its greatest example of their undying belief in their city’s hockey community.

“You know, people here, even though the Quebec Nordiques left, they still believe the team’s going to be back one day,” Dom says. “It’s minus-25 this morning, and I’ll tell you, the place is packed here. The flavour of the tournament, the passion of hockey, you can feel it very well in Quebec City.”

And for the players? To truly understand, you’d have to hear it from them.

This is the story of the world’s greatest minor hockey tournament, as told to Sportsnet by current and former NHLers who were there to experience it themselves.

Colisée Me Maybe
Before moving to the Centre Vidéotron, the pee-wee tournament spent more than five decades at the legendary Colisée

For the NHLers who played in it, the Quebec pee-wee tournament’s reputation preceded it. Whether it was because they knew the weight of the names dotted throughout the tourney’s history, or simply wanted the chance to spend two weeks in Quebec’s winter wonderland, every year a new crop of young players was champing at the bit to take part. And the emotion of that pre-tournament buildup was one of the most memorable parts of it all.

BRAD PARK, former NHLer / Played for Scarboro Lions, 1960 First of all, it started with a train ride — we’d never been on a long train ride — to get to Quebec City coming from Toronto. Getting there and experiencing the culture of Quebec City and the people and everything like that, and the way that they received us — you know what I mean. We had on these classy blue jackets and these red fedoras with a big flume on it and everything. And they loved it.

JOSH MORRISSEY, Winnipeg Jets / Played for Calgary Junior Flames, 2007 For us, it was definitely the farthest we’d ever travelled from Calgary to play hockey at that age. There was obviously a bunch of hype around the tournament, and it’s got a pretty extensive history, so we were excited to go.

MATHEW BARZAL, New York Islanders / Played for Burnaby, 2010 We played at Burnaby Winter Club, and we always had a team go. So every year it was kind of — that was the big thing you wanted to get to, was go to the Quebec tournament. Even before I was in pee-wee, I knew that that was something I wanted to do, a tournament I wanted to go to.

“We had on these classy blue jackets and these red fedoras with a big flume on it and everything. And they loved it.”

DYLAN LARKIN, Detroit Red Wings / Played for Detroit Belle Tire, 2009 You get so geared up. In Detroit, we have quite a few triple-A teams, so we all have to play each other, and I think only the top three teams go. So those games are huge games, because everyone wants to go so bad, and we all understand how big of a tournament it is.

KEVIN FIALA, Minnesota Wild / Played for Swiss Eastern, 2009 I remember that was the biggest thing. We were 12 years old. That was like playing in the NHL, you know.

MORRISSEY We were outfitted with Flames uniforms that were different than our normal uniforms, trying to represent that we were coming from Calgary. So that was pretty cool.

ANTHONY DUCLAIR, Ottawa Senators / Played with Montreal Canadiens, 2008 We got to wear the Montreal Canadiens jersey because we won the tournament here and got to wear that there. So that was an awesome moment that I got to share with my family.

ANZE KOPITAR, Los Angeles Kings / Played for Slovenia, 2000 and 2001 I was fortunate enough to play twice. I mean, that was pretty much the first time I came to North America. It’s a big deal — I didn’t realize how big of a tournament that is until I got there.

KEVIN HAYES, Philadelphia Flyers / Played for South Shore, 2004 and 2005 I just thought it was another fun tournament — you go to Canada with your family and play a lot of hockey, and go play in the snow and stuff. But it is really cool to think back now [about the alumni] — a bunch of guys, legends.

TOREY KRUG, Boston Bruins / Played for Detroit Honeybaked, 2003 I just remember going up there, I think we all bleached our hair. Just a great group of guys…. My older brother had actually gone to the tournament years before me, so I was aware of the capacity, how many people attend, the alumni before you that played in it. It’s just a fun thing to be a part of.

NIKOLAJ EHLERS, Winnipeg Jets / Played for Swiss Eastern, 2009 It was the first time I had been to Canada…. You know, I definitely thought that a tournament in Canada is not a small thing, but I never knew how big it was.

RICK VAIVE, Former NHLer / Played for Amherst, 1970 and 1971 We knew all about it. I don’t even know how many teams there was, but there were teams from all over the world. I don’t know if Russia had teams there, but there was teams from Sweden and Finland and everywhere else. It was one of those things that everybody talked about, because everybody wanted to play in it.

DALE TALLON, GM of the Florida Panthers / Played for Noranda, 1961 We had to sell matches to gather some money so we could afford to go to Quebec. And I think we only had 11 or 12 players because we didn’t have any money.

ADAM GRAVES, Former NHLer / Played for MTHL Wexford, 1981 Just the experience and the buildup and the fundraising and all those things that you did to enable yourself and your team the opportunity to go to this tournament. Every player that came before you — and now in hindsight looking back, every player since — that’s on their resumé. They played in the Quebec Pee-Wee.

Come one, come all
Started in 1960 with 32 teams, the tournament now hosts 120 from 20 countries

So much of what made Quebec City’s famed pee-wee tournament great had more to do with the city itself than the on-ice action. It was everything that came with the experience off the ice that truly stuck in the minds of the kids who rolled through — the novel thrill of living with a billet family, of taking to the outdoor rink, and most importantly, of swapping those treasured team pins.

FIALA It was just very special. Outside of the hockey, it was an awesome atmosphere. You know, a lot of snow — we went to the snow park, sledding, there was a lot of stuff we went to. It was a great time — I’ll never forget that.

BEN BISHOP, Dallas Stars / Played for St. Louis Blues, 2000 A guy on [my] team, Travis Turnbull, and I, we lived with a billet family for that week…. The house was pretty much covered in snow. Like, the whole neighbourhood — there was about 12 feet of snow in front of everybody’s houses.

BISHOP I think it was my only experience with that kind of winter. I mean, I went to the University of Maine and that was cold, but it didn’t compare to all the snow I saw up there when we went.

KOPITAR We stayed up in the mountains the first time. It was just the team, so we were by ourselves. We were in some lodges, and in between those lodges there was an ice rink, too, so we were actually skating the whole time outdoors.

HAYES The team I went with had Noel Acciari (and) Chris Wagner, and the year after we had guys like Charlie Coyle, so it was funny to see we actually played together, and now they’re in the NHL.

LARKIN With a couple teammates there, we’d go at night or when we didn’t have a game, and go in the neighbourhood rink and play on the frozen rinks and the outdoor rinks. Just cool memories like that — trading pins with all the different teams.

GRAVES For me it was less about playing on the ice and it was more about trading of pins.

BARZAL Every team has a pin. When you’re a kid, you put it on your white towel or whatever it is…. There’s like 200 kids upstairs in the trading booth, and you’re wheeling and dealing pins.

GRAVES (There are) players from all over the world, teams from all over the world. And that is such a big part of it — the trading of the pins, the culture, the experience of living with a family for the nine or 10 days that you’re in Quebec.

KRUG We stayed with a billet family — that was cool. They didn’t speak much English at all — I kept in contact with them for a long, long time. They had two boys, and we played mini-sticks with them. It was just a fun time.

HAYES You’re 12 years old — you’re living with a French family. (My billet parent still) messages me on Instagram and stuff, and checks in on me.

Who's got next?
Mathew Barzal, Connor McDavid and Dylan Larkin (from left to right) all suited up at the Quebec pee-wee tournament

When the exploring and the pin-swapping was done, the real action began. And for all the wonder of the city and its charming neighbourhood rinks, nothing during that two-week stay in the capital compared to the experience of first stepping on the ice in the Colisée.

LARKIN Just a special environment, playing in a big stadium in front of fans. As a 12-year-old kid, that’s really your first time playing in a stadium like that.

KOPITAR That was probably the coolest part, just coming into the Coliseum — I’d never played in front of that many people to begin with, and then, you know, the building’s humongous. It was certainly special.

SAM BENNETT, Calgary Flames / Played for York Simcoe, 2009
I remember the semi-final game — it was against Quebec Remparts, and I think there must have been around 10,000 people in the stands.

TALLON There were almost as many people in that building as there were in my hometown at the time.

BENNETT I remember we were all skating around the ice just looking in the stands, just in awe of how many people were there and watching. So it was the first real “wow” moment for me, for sure.

FIALA It was just a dream come true for Swiss guys, you know.

BISHOP We actually made the finals against L.A., and I think … Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell’s son was on the team — he was a goalie. I don’t know if he was playing, but the crowd was even bigger. I think they sold the place out.

BARZAL You’re playing … in the final game and it’s like, “Oh my God.” It was crazy.

LARKIN You get so fired up for those games…. You just want to win it so bad.

“You get so fired up for those games. You just want to win it so bad.”

EHLERS I think we played against the New York Rangers in a pre-tournament game where (Mark) Messier was the coach. Even that was like huge, right. We were [12] years old, but we were the first Swiss team that made it as far as we did.

DUCLAIR I played with Frederik Gauthier of the Leafs. We were on the same team there for two years…. We played against Jonathan Drouin — he was actually on the team that knocked us out of the tournament.

GRAVES The tough part for us is I went with Wexford at the time, and unfortunately, we were out after two games. But we stayed there, and maybe that’s why I don’t remember the hockey part as much as I remember just the cultural experience. It was incredible. And one that I still reflect back on fondly now and smile.

HAYES I played a year up. I was an underage guy on my team and we went. We did really well, actually — we lost in the quarter-finals to Vancouver North Shore, I think they were called. And then I went again the next year and we made it to the same exact spot and lost to the same exact team — different kids, different age group. It’s great to do those tournaments and then you fast forward to where we are now, and you see guys in the NHL you literally played against in that tournament. Jordan Weal — he actually did the same thing, he’s a ’92, and he played a year up with the team that beat the overage team I was on, and then he played for his regular-age [team] and beat us again.

One for the books
In 2016, Équipe Québec Féminine — the first all-girls team in tournament history — took the ice under the watchful eye of head coach Caroline Ouellette (far right)

TALLON You know, we did quite well — we upset some teams. We beat Victoriaville, which was a pro’s team, in the third round. I think I scored a hat trick in that game.

FIALA (I remember) we were so much smaller than everybody else. We had a good tournament, but I think we lost against St. Louis in the quarter-final…. They were so big. It’s [like we were playing] 17-year-olds, and they were 12 years old. I don’t know what they do — every time when we met USA, Canada, Sweden, even the Czech Republic, when we were 15, 16, 17, 18 years old, they were so big. Like, huge. And we were always talking about, “What are they eating? What are they giving them?”

MARC BERGEVIN, GM of the Montreal Canadiens / Played for MTL Ville Emard, 1978 We had a really good hockey team obviously, with Mario (Lemieux) and J.J. (Daigneault), the two best players probably in the city of Montreal. … We didn’t lose many games. Everywhere we went, Mario was the attraction…. I know guys used to go after our team, after Mario and J.J., because they were not only the best players on our team, but, like I said, probably the best players in the whole city of Montreal back then.

GRAVES When you look at some of the names that have played in that tournament, and certainly the opportunities that it’s given young kids … they do just a fabulous job.

BARZAL It’s just a great experience for a young kid. I loved it. I loved being there for the carnival as well — it was a blast the whole way.

TALLON That’s what it was all about — the passion and the love of the game.

GRAVES The organization, the presentation of it, and the experience for these kids — they’ll never forget that. That’s a capsule that they’ll hold onto the rest of their lives.

Photo Credits

HHOF Images; Tournoi International de Hockey Pee-Wee de Québec