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Winterland Invitational helping families through hockey

BONNYVILLE – Hockey and helping families in need go hand-in-hand at the annual Winterland Invitational.

Thirty-six atom and peewee hockey teams from across the province came together in the Lakeland over the Family Day weekend. On the ice, players were focused on getting the win, but there was a greater goal in mind.

“It’s really about families coming together to support families in need,” said Oreen Skiba, stakeholder relations manager for the Ronald McDonald House Charities Northern Alberta (RMHCNA) Lakeland region.

This year marked the third annual Winterland Invitational. From Feb. 14 to 16, teams hit the ice in Bonnyville, Glendon, and Elk Point to raise much-needed funds for the Ronald McDonald House (RMH).

Although the tournament didn’t see much growth in 2020, there was a change in who was able to participate.

“We had to take out our novice division because they went down to half-ice and the logistics would have been too difficult,” noted Skiba. “We wanted to do something new because of that. We brought in two pools, eight teams, of all female atom and peewee teams.”

Among the female players pulling on the charity’s signature red and white striped socks for the first time was Ella Murphy, defenceman for the peewee Lakeland Jaguars.

“Usually, it’s been boys but the girls have stepped up. It’s pretty good,” the 12-year-old expressed, adding she was excited to be able to participate.
Skiba explained the decision was made to ensure the Winterland Invitational was as inclusive as possible.

“We want to open the tournament up to as many teams as possible to come out and participate. It’s hard for female teams to find tournaments, so we thought this would be a good avenue to go.”

This year saw 125 teams from across the province express interest in participating. From the 36 that were able to secure a spot, players travelled from as far as Stony Plain and Battle River to take part.

The goal was to raise $135,000 over the weekend. While the total had yet to be tallied at the time of the Nouvelle’s press deadline, Skiba was confident they’d be able to exceed expectations.

Being able to support the RMH is one of the reasons atom Bonnyville Pontiac Hunter Cardinal, 10, looks forward to participating every year.

“I also have lots of fun with my teammates,” the right wing noted, adding he’s happy to do his part to help families stay together during rough times.
“Thank you to everyone who came out to cheer us on, and who helped us raise money.”

The Winterland Invitational brought in over $235,000 in its first two years in operation. With the reception the tournament has seen from the communities and teams, Skiba believes they can achieve their goal of making it the largest fundraiser for RMH in northern Alberta.

“The business community in the areas have really come together… The community as a whole has really risen up and embraced this tournament. We can’t do it without hundreds of volunteers, so a big thank you to the volunteers who participate,” she exclaimed.

Between the hockey and positive impacts of the Winterland Invitational, Town of Bonnyville Mayor Gene Sobolewski is glad to see it returning to the Lakeland year after year.  

“It brings so many people to the area and it has grown exponentially since we started it two years ago. It’s a phenomenal event and the use of facilities and restaurants, not only here but wherever they’re doing this, is an absolute bonus.”

Planning for next year’s event has already begun. Skiba was excited to announce the tournament will be expanding to more arenas in the Lakeland.

“Next year we’re actually going to be growing into Cold Lake, so we’ll be able to increase the number of teams.”

Skiba couldn’t pinpoint exactly how many additional spots will be open in 2021, but she’s hoping the expansion will allow 24 more teams to participate.

Robynne Henry, Bonnyville Nouvelle