Former Westside Warriors defencemen Justin Schultz and Joel Woznikoski go back a long ways. Both players hit the ice for the Warriors during the team’s inaugural season in the Kelowna area, when the team played out of Memorial Arena in its first season in the BCHL.
It was the 2006-07 season and Woznikoski arrived having played some games for Kamloops of the WHL as well as in Langley the year before the franchise moved to West Kelowna. Schultz was still playing minor hockey but would play two games as an affiliate player that season, before joining the team the next season as a 16-year-old.
Both of them will be reunited this week, along with over 30 former and current Warriors, as the team holds its first ever Warriors Alumni Weekend, celebrating the team’s seven-year history in the BCHL.
“When I came here I came from Kamloops where everybody knew who you were and it was over the top,” said Woznikoski, a 6-foot-5 blueliner and one of the most popular players in Warriors’ history. “When I came to Westside things were just starting to get rolling. We played in old Memorial Arena and it was a fun atmosphere. You could see people cared but they didn’t really know what it was all about.”
One thing people did know, or hoped anyhow, was that they had a young star-in-the-making in Schultz, a West Kelowna native who arrived on the Warriors scene as a 15-year-old affiliate player that first year, and served notice he would be a player to watch, scoring a game-tying goal in Memorial in his first ever game. The next two years Schultz would be named the BCHL Interior Division’s top defenceman, playing alongside Woznikoski as the Warriors started play in Royal LePage Place in 2007-08.
It’s the teammates that Schultz remembers best when thinking back on his first two years of junior, before moving on to the University of Wisconsin and now the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
“I just think about the guys and creating life-long friendships,” said Schultz of his seasons with the Warriors. “It was a couple of the best years of my life. When I went to college I missed the junior life of just hanging out with the guys. It was a great couple years for me. This weekend it’s going to be just like old times, back in those Westside days.”
While Schultz and Woznikoski are linked by those early years, their careers have gone in different directions. Schultz is beginning an NHL career after his rookie season in Edmonton, while Woznikoski is beginning a career as a firefighter after playing two years of hockey at SAIT in Calgary (with a handful of other Warriors alumni) and after graduating with his firefighting ticket from the Justice Institute of B.C.
It was the absence from hockey that got Woznikoski thinking about the Warriors alumni.
“Just starting the firefighting thing I knew I wasn’t going to be a part of any hockey scene for quite awhile,” he said. “I just thought what better way to get to spend some time with the guys and do it for a good cause. Guys always want to get together and do all these things but it takes time and commitment. An event like this is a great way to put something towards a good cause and see everybody again.”
With that in mind, Woznikoski began working with the Warriors to plan the event and figure out ways to support the community. As a player Woznikoski once pledged to donate money for every goal the team scored, kicking off a fundraising campaign that would eventually raise $18,000 for cancer research when all was said and done.
“That really opened my eyes as to what could happen with an event like this,” he said. “After I finished school and I realized I wasn’t playing hockey anymore I had some spare time to work on something like this. The response has been extremely positive because everybody had such a great experience in Westside. Sometimes guys left on bad terms or were traded away but it was always one of those place guys wanted to come back to in the summer.”
Other Warriors expected to attend the Warriors Alumni Weekend is original head coach Mark Howell, now at the University of Calgary, as well as new alumni Max French, another West Kelowna native and the Warriors’ captain last season, who will start his NCAA career at the Bentley University this fall.
“It’s only been a little while and I’m already missing the rink,” said French who played four seasons for the Warriors. “It’s going to be fun. You play with so many guys that it’s hard to keep in touch but this gives us an opportunity to play some hockey and golf and really catch up.”
The Warriors first alumni weekend features a hockey game at 5 p.m. Saturday at RLP, a mix and mingle event at 19 Okanagan Bar and Grill on Sunday at 6 p.m. and a golf tournament Monday at 2 p.m. at Two Eagles Golf Course.
Admission to the hockey game is a donation to the Westside Community Food Bank while Westside Minor Hockey will also benefit and the Warriors alumni have established two scholarships to be handed out annually to a graduating player and former player who are attending school.
For more information on the event and the Warriors alumni, check out www.warriorsalumni.wordpress.com.