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'Pureness of the sport' comes out in Alberta

Former Calgary Flame Jim Peplinski was the face of the Edmonton-Calgary bid for the 2012 world junior hockey championships.

Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press/Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press

Jim Peplinski knew something special was happening here in the early moments following the Finland-Slovakia quarter-final game last Monday afternoon.

Though the scoreboard had stopped – Finland 8, Slovakia 5 – the real clock was moving on, with the next match between Russia and Czech Republic coming up fast at the Scotiabank Saddledome. And the rink had more crumpled popcorn bags and empty beer glasses than the cleaning staff could handle.

Peplinski was with his own four children – Erin, 24, Matt, 23, Anny, 19, Quinn, 16, and their friend Curt Wettstein, 25 – and he asked them: "Would you mind helping?"

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Sure, they said, and began picking up. Soon there were dozens of volunteers helping out the cleaners – including several employees of the Calgary Flames organization.

"Here were these senior executives putting on rubber gloves and lining up for garbage bags to pitch in," Peplinski says. "You want to tell me that's not Canada?"

Peplinski, the 51-year-old former captain of the NHL's Flames, is the face of the Edmonton-Calgary bid for the 2012 world junior hockey championship. Though he represented Canada in the 1988 Olympics, he never did play in the world juniors. "I didn't get picked."

Peplinski was a tough-as-nails NHLer, believed by many to be the inventor of the face wash and once a fearsome fighter, though today he believes fighting has no place in the game. He was also once so despised by the Flames' archrival Edmonton Oilers that he believed it impossible for him to be involved in any enterprise that would involve the more northern of the two Alberta cities.

Following his retirement during the 1989-90 season, he became a broadcaster and then a businessman, opening several vehicle-leasing dealerships, including one in Edmonton that he initially believed was a bad call.

"They tried to kill me for 10 years," he says of his battles with the Oilers, "and I tried to return the favour."

He remembers his first business trip to Edmonton and how when he entered a restaurant for a business meeting he could feel every eye on him, hard staring.

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"I hear this guy behind me say, 'Hey Peplinski!' and I figured, 'Oh, oh, here we go' – but the guy just wanted to shake hands. 'I hated you when we played you,' the guy says, 'but I always wished you were on our team.' I knew from that moment on that I'd be okay there."

Ken King of the Flames asked Peplinski to come on board as a vice-president of business development and they decided to go after the 2009 world junior tournament, which ended up being awarded to Ottawa. Instead of giving up, they went to Ottawa to learn how to put on such an event – "[Ottawa Senators president]Cyril Leeder was unbelievably helpful" – and won the 2012 tournament.

It is already presumed that this will be the most successful world juniors in history, with revenues projected into the $80-million range. Peplinski says there were no hard promises made. "We said, 'Look, we do stuff on a handshake out here. We will generate so much out here that no one will touch the financial returns we will guarantee.'" If the price of oil stayed up, he assured the International Ice Hockey Federation and Hockey Canada, "We'll shoot the lights out." And it appears they will.

Peplinski says that, for him, the tournament is not about money generated or the size of the 50/50 draw or even which team wins, but "the intangibles" – lessons taken from watching youngsters play for the love of game and country.

"I believe in what you saw in the Sweden-Russia game early on," he says. "You get up when you fall down. You work out your problems. You stress the importance of team. You learn how to win – but also how to lose."

No team, he says, showed more grace than the U.S. team, which was booed mercilessly every time its players touched the puck. He met with the onetime tournament favourites following their final match Monday – in which they won their relegation match against Latvia 12-2 – and found them "professional and personable. Everybody's booing the Americans and yet who is it we turn to in need?"

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What the junior tournament demonstrates, he says, is "the pureness of the sport."

But also the goodness of heart – especially when concerning the Spirit of the West shown by the multitude of volunteers.

"We have geophysicists, doctors, lawyers, taxi drivers, home keepers, clerks, students, you name it," Peplinski says. "Every one of them giving their time for this event.

"If you said we're going to need the Calgary Tower down by 6 a.m. tomorrow, they'd find a way to get it done."

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