A Colwood ball hockey player experienced the thrill of a lifetime this month playing at an international tournament in the Czech Republic.
One of the top young players in the growing ball hockey league in Greater Victoria, Zackery Whittaker, 14, took his game to the next level as a member of the mainland-based West Coast Express. He captained the team to the gold medal and earned most valuable player honours at the annual Plzen Cup youth tournament.
The clincher was a 3-1 decision over the host team on June 12, a win that saw Whittaker score the eventual winner early in the second of two 15-minute periods.
“If there was one game where we had to come together, it was definitely that game and we played our best ball hockey of the tournament,” he said.
In the middle of his fifth year in the sport, Whittaker, who plays ice hockey with Juan de Fuca in the winter, tried out for the Express at the urging of his mainland-based cousin, Cole Moffatt.
During a trip over to watch Moffatt play last year, Whittaker got excited about the prospect of playing high-level ball hockey in the Czech Republic. He wound up as the only Island player to make the tournament team squad and landed on the same line as his cousin and sniper Trevor O’Reilly.
If making the team in the first place wasn’t honour enough for the young Islander, an even bigger highlight came after the team arrived in Prague, had a couple of practices and had done some sightseeing.
Head coach/manager Gary Slavin – the guru of ball hockey on the mainland – took the players to the old town square where the Czech national team once declared Jaromir Jagr as captain. It was there that Whittaker was announced as the Express’ team captain for the Plzen tournament.
“That was kind of cool; it was kind of unexpected that they gave me the captaincy like they did and I was pretty pumped about it,” he said. “The cooler thing was all my teammates were really supportive of me and gave me congratulations.”
That bonding moment carried through the tournament, he said, and helped the players push through the first-game jitters against the host team. Once they built a 2-0 lead, with Whittaker setting up the second goal for his first point of the tournament, they settled into a groove and won 3-1.
In total, the Express outscored their opponents 31-2 in round robin games. Whitaker wound up with three goals and seven assists.
Back home he has to finish out his season with the Renegades, who are mid-pack in the Victoria Minor Ball Hockey League, but he’ll be on the reserve list for Team B.C. under-15s for the upcoming national championships in Edmonton.
At not quite 15, Whittaker is one of the young pioneers in the local league, which began with a couple dozen players and games took place wherever players could find a vacant lacrosse box. These days hundreds of players are involved, many of them ice hockey players in winter.
Asked whether he feels like a bit of a pioneer again having broken through the mainland barrier, he said he hopes more Island players get the kind of opportunity he did.
“I feel pretty honoured that I was able to get scouted like I was last year during my regular season, and to be able to represent our country,” he said.
“It was kind of icing on top of the cake to be the only kid from the Island, so it was pretty good.”