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Inaugural Paul Bunyan International Pee Wee Hockey Tournament held in 1988

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news Bemidji, 56619

Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

Kevin Williamson has been around the game of hockey his entire life, as both a player and a coach. As a result, he's connected to hockey circles worldwide.

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That's why, in 1988, Williamson helped organize the inaugural Paul Bunyan International Pee Wee Hockey Tournament. The tournament committee wanted it to be big, and it needed to have an international flavor.

"We wanted to bring in teams that our pee wees wouldn't normally be seeing and get well outside of the bounds of Minnesota," Williamson said.

Prominent members of the tournament committee included Steve Premo, Mark Elliott, Orlan Echternauch, Dana Ross, Dan Dow, Jerry Phillips, Pat Winkler and Vance Balstad.

Williamson's job on the committee was to recruit teams to the tournament, and he used his hockey connections to bring teams from around the world to Bemidji.

In January, Williamson would start recruiting teams to the tournament. During the year, he would call over 100 teams to see if they would register. Eventually, he wound up with a list of 16 teams confirmed to compete.

In the first year of competition, the Los Angeles Junior Kings, led by former Minnesota Wild player Richard Park, skated away with the championship. Fairbanks, Alaska, took second place.

Park recorded eight assists in the tournament, and is tied with four other players for the most assists in a single tournament.

Williamson and the committee worked hard to attract teams from far away by offering new and interesting events to teams from non-traditional hockey markets.

For example, the tournament gave the Los Angeles Junior Kings the opportunity to go snowmobiling and play pond hockey. Another team from Texas got the chance to go ice fishing.

These activities made the tournament extra enticing.

In 1994, Williamson succeeded in recruiting two teams from Russia to compete. Both of those teams met in the championship game. Ninji Novgorod won the title, while Magnitogorsk took second place.

Stanislav Chistov of Ninji Novgorod went on to play for Team Russia in the World Championships and was selected by Edmonton fifth overall in the 2001 National Hockey League draft. Chistov remains the highest drafted player to participate in the tournament.

Williamson can't remember exactly how he contacted the Russian teams, but he thinks it had something to do with his father, Murray, who coached the United States men's hockey team to a silver medal in the 1972 Olympics.

The tournament regularly hosts teams from Canada.

A Norwegian team, Stavanger, also competed in the tournament. Williamson was able to contact Stavenger through a former college teammate.

Williamson remembers his time as a youth hockey player and how much fun he had playing in tournaments across Minnesota.

Those memories are another reason he wanted to be involved in the inception of the tournament.

"Pee Wee hockey is a once in a lifetime opportunity," Williamson said. "It comes and it goes, and you don't ever get it back."

Williamson recalls playing in a pee wee tournament against a team from Roseau. Before the game, Williamson expected to pick up an easy win against some no-name players from the small town near the Canadian border.

Little did he know that he was playing against future Minnesota hockey legends: Brian Erickson and brothers Neal and Aaron Broten. Roseau ran away with a 7-1 victory.

Organizing the tournament took its toll on the committee, and by the 2000, the tournament dissolved.

"We just got burned out," Williamson said.

After a four year hiatus, the tournament the tournament was resurrected with the help of John Carlson and a new committee. "We want to provide a 'wow' factor and stay true to the tournament's roots," Carlson said. "We try to go that extra mile."

Though Williamson is no longer involved in the tournament, he believes making lasting memories is the most important part of the event.

"Two kids could play in the tournament and wind up being roommates in college seven or eight years down the line," Williamson said. "That's the neat part; these kids will be able to identify with that."

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