Close-up: Becoming Hockeyville
West Kelowna has a history of competing with itself.
In 2007, 5,954 voices told 5,582 that they didn't want to join the City of Kelowna.
In 2008, 47.9 per cent of the community informed 45.9 per cent that the new municipality would be named: The District of West Kelowna.
Since then, grudges have been let go, grumbling voices have quieted down and a once disoriented district has began to form an identity for itself.
And now, thanks to frozen water, a wooden stick and a six-ounce piece of rubber, the young municipality has found something that everyone can rally around.
On Jan. 31, the first phase of the 2012 Kraft Hockeyville contest closed.
The initial challenge was for individuals to nominate their communities and gather as much support as possible.
"They are really looking for community spirit," says Adam Less, co-chair of the West Kelowna Hockeyville campaign.
"They want to see community engagement—that the community is behind hockey."
Less says that spirit has been achieved by hosting events, submitting photos and stories online to the Kraft Hockeyville website and utilizing social media to share the community's passion for hockey.
During a Hockey Night in Canada broadcast on Mar. 3, the top 15 finalists—three from each of five different Canadian regions—will be announced, commencing the second stage of the competition.
If you go by the numbers, West Kelowna is a heavy favourite to advance to the next round.
With 518 members and 1,267 submissions on the Hockeyville website, West Kelowna is ahead of every other community in the Pacific region.
Osoyoos is the closest contender with 437 submissions, while Merritt has gathered 401.
"I think the demonstration of community spirit here has been, in a word, amazing. Since this first opened, we've been the strongest community in (the Pacific region). I think that we've done a tremendous job," says Less.
"Some of the stories that have been submitted to the Kraft Hockeyville website have been so inspiring and have literally choked me up at times. It's amazing how much hockey permeates through the entire community, how many people are involved in hockey, how much hockey touches the lives of people here."
The only Canadian community to put up better numbers than West Kelowna in the first stage of the competition was Goderich, Ont. With 1,725 members and 2,137 submissions, "Canada's prettiest town" might be the odds-on favourite at this stage in the competition.
But, according to Less, once the contest has shortlisted 15 competitors, the challenge shifts gears and communities rely on votes. At that point, it once again becomes anyone's game.
"If we're shortlisted, this really falls to the hands of every member of the community, and every friend they have, to vote. That's what's going to ultimately decide this thing. It's about mobilizing people and motivating people to get involved and do all they can to help us win this thing."
After seeing the community's willingness to embrace the competition, Less is "cautiously optimistic" that West Kelowna can go far in its quest to become Hockeyville.
"Our community has shown over the years that it's extremely passionate. We're a small community, but we're a community of people who really care about what goes on here. I'm very pleased to see that the community (has come) forward the way it has. We hope that it continues."
A passion for hockey and a love for West Kelowna are the two ingredients that Less says influenced his decision to become co-chair of the Hockeyville bid.
"Those two things are at the heart of Hockeyville, so it just seemed a natural fit."
Less hasn't been alone in the battle to spread Kraft Hockeyville fever. Andrew Deans has put an equal effort into showcasing West Kelowna's love for hockey.
"Andrew brings some unique experience to this whole thing because he was involved with the committee that won the bid in Terrace back in 2009. He's been through this before; he's seen how it can benefit a community.
"He is passionate about hockey and he gets behind things 100 per cent whenever he does anything. So his experience and passion have been real assets for this bid."
Deans is reluctant to speak about his experience in Terrace, noting that the 2009 bid was quite different than this year's competition. He says that his knowledge from Terrace has been helpful in getting the Westside campaign off the ground, but now the focus is on making the bid something that is completely reflective of West Kelowna.
"It really is all about the community, this whole event. It's not really about hockey, it's about how your community steps up to the plate," says Deans.
Deans recently orchestrated a pond hockey skating event at Shannon Lake. He says he was impressed by the numbers that came out, especially considering the sub-zero temperature.
He mentions that February will feature more events to keep the Hockeyville spirit alive.
When asked what the secret has been behind West Kelowna's early success, Deans is quick to commend the effort of locals.
"The community has stepped up in a huge way. I never dreamed of getting over 1,000 submissions, and here we are. It's like a wave of momentum that just takes you over," says Deans.
If that wave can carry West Kelowna into the final stage of the competition, where only five communities will remain, the Westside will earn $25,000 to be used for arena upgrades.
And if that momentum can carry West Kelowna into first place, the district will reap even more benefits.
The winning community will earn the Kraft Hockeyville 2012 title and trophy, it will get the opportunity to host an NHL exhibition game at its home arena and it will receive $100,000 for arena upgrades.
The winner will also be featured on a CBC television broadcast, related to the exhibition game, in the fall of 2012.
Ever since West Kelowna announced its participation in the contest, the District of West Kelowna and Westbank First Nation councils have shown their support.
Mayor Doug Findlater says there are three key benefits behind the Kraft Hockeyville competition.
"There's the exposure across Canada that comes as you progress in the competition. We're a new municipality; it allows us to become known a little bit," says Findlater.
"There's $100,000 that would go to a municipal facility. We have two arenas here—they both need work.
"The third thing is the option of an NHL exhibition game, which provides (more) exposure. Kelowna got a lot of exposure with the Top Prospects events that went on there. This would give us similar national exposure."
Findlater says he isn't willing to predict what the $100,000 would be used for; however, he mentions that there is no shortage of a need for the money on the Westside.
"Jim Lind Arena is, sadly, in need of some repairs. We're already devoting some (money) to it, but there would be more there," says Findlater.
"There are concerns in Royal LePage. While it's a new arena, it was designed as a 500 seat arena and then 1,500 seats were put in there. Some of the facilities, like washrooms and concessions, are a bit under the level you'd want for that size."
According to Findlater, both arenas need additional parking as well.
"One hundred thousand dollars for an arena would really help us."
With no guarantee of making the top five—or even the top 15—some might question whether this whole campaign has been worth it.
"Absolutely. In every way," says Findlater.
"All the events that have been arranged have been awesome for people in the community to get out and participate in."
Less' sentiments mirrored Findlater's.
"In many ways I think we've already won, just having gone through this process. It's helped bring the community together behind one cause. Frankly, at this point, we're so proud of what we've done up to now that win or lose, nothing will change that."
As Findlater recalls his own memories of playing hockey as a child, he goes into detail, describing the specific sheet of ice in Ottawa where he first learned Canada's sport.
Although the memories are likely special to the mayor, they're far from unique.
"(Hockeyville) is something we can all agree on, and that doesn't always happen," says Findlater.
"The community loves hockey—from one end to the other. We can all appreciate this idea."
So, as West Kelowna crosses laces, sticks and fingers, competitiveness still remains.
But this time, everyone's shooting for the same goal.