As a member of the Watkin Motors Mustangs, Cole Sanford brought all the intangibles they needed to claim back-to-back A titles in the Coca-Cola Pee Wee Hockey Classic.
Surrounded by ultra-talent like captain Curtis Lazar, Alex Gillies, Jordan Burns, Spencer Hewson, Michael Roberts, Colton Thibault, Logan Geefs and Brett Jewell, Sanford and the Mustangs mauled the Swift Current Broncos 8-0 in the 2008 final.
The year before, Sanford, Lazar, Burns, Jewell, Gillies and Jedd Soleway boosted Vernon to a 5-3 win over Calgary Crowchild, led by Matt Dumba (Minnesota Wild first-round draft choice) and Cole Ully (fifth-round pick, Dallas Stars).
Ross Jewell, who also coached Cole’s older brother, Tye, in 2006 when the Mustangs also took the tournament crown, fondly recalls Cole’s contributions .
Said Jewell: “If I had to sum up Cole as a hockey player back then, in one sentence, it would be: “a very talented player with a hockey IQ to match his high skill level, who quietly went about the business of making great plays to help his teams win.”
Jewell said Sanford was quiet in the dressing room and wasn’t the fastest or strongest player on the ice.
“However, he was the smartest hockey player I have ever coached. His ability to read and anticipate the play and move to areas before the play moved there was quite uncanny. He more than made up for his smaller stature with his hockey sense, heads-up play, and ability to think the game two or three steps ahead of his opponents.
“Combine those hockey smarts with some very soft hands and great playmaking ability, and it’s not surprising that he has had the type of success he has had at higher levels of hockey. He was always a good teammate and a positive factor in the dressing room, which is why he wore a letter in his second year of Pee Wee when he helped us go to the provincials in Cranbrook.”
Sanford, a 20-year-old in his fourth and final season in the Western Hockey League, couldn’t wait to get to the rink in his Pee Wee days.
“I remember the early-morning practices. I was a kid and it was a good atmosphere. We had a good team and I remember having fun on the road staying in hotels. We went to provincials (2008) in Cranbrook and we lost to Burnaby Winter Club in the semifinals. I remember they got a lucky goal from centre ice.
“Ross was tough, but fair. He wanted everybody at that age to have a good experience.”
The Coke Classic draws rave reviews for treating teams first-class and Sanford will always cherish those two years.
“Just the tournament in general was something special. We were in the parade and we had such a good team, I remember we opened with Alaska (2007) and it was pretty cool playing an American team. I had hung around my brother when he played in the feature game so it was pretty special to get the same chance.
“I have nothing but good memories of that tournament and the banquet.”
Sanford especially loved playing alongside good buddies Gillies and Dylan Bowen.
Added Jewell: “His teammates respected him for his commitment to the team, his skilled play, and his quiet form of leadership by example…..and they also greatly appreciated Cole’s pre-game music choices for the dressing room.”
Sanford played eight games with the BCHL Vernon Vipers as a 16-year-old, finishing the season with Tye and the the Junior B Revelstoke Grizzlies. He was third in scoring with 29 goals and 53 points.
He rang up 106 goals and 217 points in four seasons with the Medicine Hat Tigers, firing 50 goals and 95 points last year with regular linemate Trevor Cox amassing 80 assists and 109 points.
Traded to the Regina Pats at the Jan. 10 deadline, Sanford made an immediate impact, scoring with seconds left in double overtime as Regina stopped the hometown Everett Silvertips.
Sanford has five goals in 10 games for Regina. He compiled 21 goals and 38 points with Medicine Hat.
The Watkin Motors gang, coached by former Vernon Laker d-man Wes Elliott, took the Okanagan Tier 2 title at 14-1 and are captained by Jacob Boden, 12.
“It’s really exciting,” said Boden, who joined his teammates on a float in the sun-drenched Carnival parade Saturday. “We’re going to do our best and see what happens.”
Elliott and assistant coach Scott Palfreyman both skated in the Coke Classic. Stacy Roest, another assistant coach, is a retired NHLer.
“When we’re playing our best, we’re working hard, communicating well, backchecking, getting pucks on net and having fun,” said Boden.
The Mustangs open the tournament Thursday at 8 a.m. against the Glenlake Hawks of Calgary and then meet the Idaho Steelheads in the feature game at 6 p.m. Vernon finishes the round-robin Friday at 5:30 p.m. versus the Dawson Creek Canucks.
The Alaska Arctic Lions, Fort St. John Flyers, Nelson Leafs and St. Albert Sabres round out the Classic roster.
All games are at Civic Arena.