When the 52nd annual Kamloops International Bantam Ice Hockey Tournament (KIBIHT) gets started on Jan. 1, there will be two local hockey players taking part, and they’re both gearing up for five days of fast and furious action.
Darius Fitzpatrick and Kheller Ouellette are both 14, and started playing hockey together in the Thompson Cariboo Minor Hockey Association in Ashcroft when they were four. They’re now in Grade 8 at Desert Sands Community School, and this season both boys are playing on Bantam teams in Kamloops for the first time.
Kheller plays left wing for the Tier 2 Kamloops Minor Hockey Association Bantam rep team, the Kamloops Jr. Blazers, while Darius plays left wing and centre for the Tier 1 BC Hockey Zone Thompson Blazers.
Kheller’s mother Sherri Ouellette says that both boys went through an intense series of tryouts lasting three weeks before earning spots on their teams. While several of Darius’s teammates come from around the region, Kheller says that he is the only non-Kamloops player on his team.
“That’s the norm,” he explains. “Kamloops has a pretty big variety of players, so they could easily make up teams from what they have available.”
He tried out for the team last year but didn’t make it. He says that he decided to try again this year, but only after making sure his family was on board with the decision.
The importance of having family on board becomes apparent when you look at the boys’ schedules. Both of them have one evening practice (5 to 8:30 p.m.) and one morning practice (5:30 to 7:15 a.m.) in Kamloops each week, plus games every Saturday and Sunday. Sherri says that the early morning practices mean Kheller gets up at 3:30 a.m. and they leave the house at 4. They’re back by 8:30 a.m., giving Kheller a chance to have a shower before heading to school. She adds that so far this year he has only been late to school once.
“I told him that if I heard any complaints [about getting up early] I don’t have to take you,” she adds. Kheller says that it was a bit difficult to get up for the morning practice on Thursday, Dec. 19, since he is also on the school basketball time, and they have practices on Wednesday night.
“Other than that, I love it.”
Kheller’s games take place in Penticton, Kelowna, West Kelowna, Vernon, Williams Lake, and Kamloops, while Darius’s road trips can take him as far afield as Vancouver, Fort St. John, and the Yukon. The KIBIHT tournament will mark his first time back in a game since he broke his leg while playing hockey in October.
He used to play a wide variety of sports, including basketball, lacrosse, and basketball, but is now concentrating on hockey. Asked about whether he finds it difficult to find a balance between school, sports, nutrition, sleep, and a social life he says no.
“It’s not hard to find a balance. It becomes a routine after you’ve done it for a long time, and you get used to it. I’ve been playing since I could walk, and I love hockey.”
Sherri does most of the driving with Kheller, and says that the Tuesday evening practices are better than the Thursday morning ones. “I can get errands done or go shopping or visit my daughter. On Thursday morning I’ll have a coffee, watch some practice, or even have a little nap in the car in the parking lot.”
She says that during the journeys she and Kheller talk about a variety of things.
“We talk about hockey and school. He knows he has to keep his academics up or hockey will go. We talk about where he’s at with his grades, and his projects, and talk about balancing everything.
“He’s done great with that. He gets to bed at a good time, he puts the phone away. They do a lot of training around nutrition at practices. He loves his junk food but he’s quite aware of nutrition.”
They also talk about the games, and about sportsmanship. “Being part of a team isn’t just about playing hockey; it’s about being kind. If a teammate is having a bad day you can pump them up and bring them back, and Kheller’s done that.”
He was rewarded by being named one of his team’s two assistant captains, and Sherri says that it’s good for him to come to in as an outsider from a small town and make it on the team, then be named assistant captain.
Kheller says that the hardest thing is finding time to hang out with family and friends. “I have a lot of sports going on. Next year I want to try out for minor-midget based out of Kamloops. The schedule is pretty similar, but there’s one more practice a week, and a bit more travelling for league games.”
Darius says that the biggest difference he’s noticed between Bantam play in Ashcroft and Kamloops is that the latter players are much faster and bigger.
“I need to work really hard to fit in with the level they’re on.”
For Kheller, the biggest difference is that he’s now playing full contact hockey. “They don’t have full contact in Ashcroft, but they allow it at the higher tier. It wasn’t hard getting used to it.”
Something both boys make clear is how much they love the game.
“I’m enjoying all of it,” says Kheller. “The people I’m around while playing and the calibre of hockey are great. The easiest thing is getting up and going off to play hockey. I love it so much I have no complaints.”
Darius, who has started going to practices again, is looking forward to the tournament.
“I’m pretty hyped about it. I’ve heard that the kids are big and fast, but we’ve been working pretty hard, so I think we’ll do good.
“I’d like to do it [Kamloops hockey] again. It’s a real life experience. It’s just super fun and I really love it.”
Kheller’s team is the tournament host, and Darius’s team entered as a Zone team. There will be 78 games total in two tiers over five days, with each team guaranteed five games before the knock-out stages. Kheller says that he knows of a few close family members and friends who will be coming to watch the tournament.
“A few kids on my team did it last year and said it’s pretty intense. There are a lot of people there, and a lot going on at once.”
The tournament starts on Jan. 1, with the Kamloops Jr. Blazers playing their first game at 7:15 p.m. and the Thompson Blazers playing their first game at 7:45 p.m. For full schedule information, go to http://www.kibiht.com/.