With more than 200 attendees on hand to cheer them on, three athletes and one builder were inducted into the Central Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame on Thursday at the Coast Capri Hotel.
World champions Sarah Charles (trampoline) and Christie Van Hees (racquetball) were joined by Stanley Cup champion Wayne Hicks and volleyball coach and administrator Rod Belinski. Triathlon pioneers and volunteers extraordinaire, John and Jennifer Hindle, were honoured posthumously at the induction ceremony as the Bennett Award of Excellence recipients.
The Bennett Award is in special recognition of an individual(s) who have made a significant contribution to sport in the Central Okanagan, but who would not otherwise qualify for induction to the Central Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame.
The inductions at the eighth annual gala breakfast bring to 24 the number of individual members in the Central Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame. There are also six teams in the hall, as well as three Bennett Award recipients.
While all inductees expressed their gratitude for the honour of being inducted, the common thread was the appreciation and indebtedness they had for those who helped them along the way.
Perhaps it was a future Central Okanagan hall of famer in attendance who summed it up best.
“The real storylines this morning are the people who helped get these inductees to where they are — the teachers, the coaches, teammates and especially the parents. What they do to contribute to a world-class athlete is phenomenal.” said Kelowna’s Conrad Leinemann, a 2000 Canadian Olympic beach volleyball player and gold medalist at the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, who travelled to his hometown from Toronto to witness the induction of Belinski, his former high school coach at KLO Secondary.
“That’s why I’m here. I really can’t thank Rod enough for what he taught me during the early stages of my career,” said Leinemann, 44, who with his wife, Jane Roos, is now helping athletes through the work of the Canadian Athletes Now Fund that has raised more than $20 million for athletes in the country.
Leinemann agreed with Belinski’s self assessment earlier in the morning of being a “dictator” during his early days of coaching at KLO.
“He was tough back then. He beat us up pretty good. But we dealt with it and we embraced it because we loved working hard and we knew he was so knowledgeable. And obviously, his record speaks for itself. He instilled confidence in our abilities and got the results. His teams were among the best in the province year after year after year.”
Because there aren’t coaches in beach volleyball matches, Leinemann said he drew heavily on what he learned from Belinski and his University of B.C. coach, Dale Ohman, a mentor of Belinski’s who was also in attendance on Thursday.
Similarly, Belinski, acknowledged the commitment and talent of KLO student athletes through the years — including Central Okanagan hall of fame members Joanne Ritchie (triathlon) and Erminia Russo (volleyball) and other Canadian national team members such as Leinemann, Rob Friend (soccer), Doug Reimer (volleyball coach) and Heather Mandoli (rowing).
“That’s the type of talent I had to work with,” said Belinski, who was at the helm of five KLO provincial championship volleyball teams, the 1995 edition going undefeated at the provincial event. “It’s easy when you have (athletes) like that.”
As well as coaching high school and provincial teams during his 40-plus years in the sport, Belinski (tournament chair) also was the driving force in Kelowna hosting the B.C. volleyball championship tournament for 19 years.
“Our goal was always to improve the level of volleyball in the province and showcase the sport,” noted Belinski, who never played the game himself. “Thanks to the support of teachers, coaches, parents and committee members, I believe we accomplished what we set out to do.”
Meanwhile, Charles (married name Gairdner) never dreamed about winning world titles when she executed her first jumps onto the family sofa nearly 30 years ago.
But through many twists and turns — with the huge help and encouragement of her parents, Gordy and Jennifer, and seven coaches during her career —she did indeed claim world double mini trampoline championships in 2003 and 2007.
A promising national age-group artistic gymnast in Kelowna, Charles left the sport at age 14 due largely to chronic achilles tendinitis. But she couldn’t give up going to the gym.
“I realized I loved being a part of that gym environment. I had so many friends there and I loved what the sport offered,” she recalled after her induction. “The transition to double mini was perfect for me. It gave me the opportunity to stay in the gym and compete in something that didn’t have as much impact on my body. I’m very grateful. It all worked out for the best.”
Following her two world double mini championships, Charles later made the commitment to concentrate more on the individual trampoline. While she rose quickly in the national rankings, a back injury took its toll and contributed to her not quite making the Canadian 2008 Summer Olympic Games team in Beijing. She was however an alternate and helped cheer on her teammates to a pair of silver-medal performances.
The challenge of yet another shift — from elite athlete to university graduate (doctoral degree from the Faculty of Exercise Sciences at the University of Toronto), to motherhood (she’s due with her second child in February) — has been met head on by Charles, who will turn 30 in January.
“It’s difficult because as an athlete you’re so focused on your sport that it becomes a huge part of who you are,” Charles said. “When you let go of that piece of your life, you have to deal with what’s left and who you are.”
Charles added she’s fortunate to having “an amazing family” and other supporters around her.
“They always emphasized being a whole person, so it was easier for me than others.”
During her acceptance speech, Charles echoed the sentiments of Leinemann.
“It’s humbling to be up here accepting this honour when I feel that it’s my parents who should be up here receiving it for all that they have contributed to my success in sport. I feel this award is more dedicated to them.”
Now a mother of two, Christie Van Hees said she realizes more than ever the commitment her parents, Candy and Dirk, made during her rise to the top of the racquetball world.
As the best racquetball player Canada has produced, Van Hees won eight consecutive junior nationals championships and went on to capture six Canadian senior titles. She won world titles in 1998 and 2006, while later earning three U.S. Open championships and holding down the world’s top ranking in 2005.
“I can see even better now how impactful parents can be and how important the sense of belonging is. There was never a time in the junior racquetball program in Kelowna that I didn’t feel I belonged. I just hope that I can deliver the same kind of lessons in life that I learned from my parents.”
Van Hees, now living in Texas, said she has always had strong ties to Kelowna and said her hometown kept her grounded.
"Travelling and competing in an individual sport can be isolating, so returning to my hometown and the people I grew up with was very fulfilling. It gave me the balance I needed to be successful. I always loved returning for this very reason.
"Thank you to the city of Kelowna for this amazing experience. It is truly an honour."
Although Wayne Hicks played only one game with the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1960-61 season — it happened to be the Stanley Cup-clinching one as the Hawks defeated the Detroit 5-1 for their first National Hockey League championship in 53 years.
Hicks had been brought up from the Hawks’ American Hockey League team (Buffalo Bisons) at the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs and finally dressed for the final when Murray Balfour had his forearm broken.
Hicks, the first Kelowna Minor Hockey Association product to make it to the NHL and the only one thus far to have his named engraved on the Stanley Cup, went on to play 117 games in the world’s top league with the Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Inducted into the Central Okanagan Sports Hall of Fame as a pioneer athlete, Hicks was among the top point producers in the American Hockey League during the six-team era of the NHL.
While the property of the legendary Montreal Canadiens dynasty of the mid 1960s, Hicks played four seasons with the Quebec Aces, averaging 34 goals and 84 points per season.
By the time he got back to the NHL (with Philadelphia) during its first expansion, he was 30 years old.
Unable to attend the induction ceremony, Hicks’ twin brother, Warren, spoke on behalf of Wayne and read a note on his behalf.
“Thank you for my selection into the Central Okanagan Sports Hall Of Fame,” wrote Wayne Hicks, from Scottsdale, Ariz. “I am very humbled to be given such this great honour. The Okanagan has produced so many great athletes over the years and it’s overwhelming to me that I am being mentioned in the same breath with some of the best.”
Hicks, who began playing hockey on the ponds in East Kelowna in the early 1940s, didn’t play on an indoor rink until the Kelowna Memorial Arena was built in 1949. The Hicks brothers quickly established themselves as the top minor hockey players in Kelowna and led the newly formed bantams to a Valley title in 1951 and a provincial midget championship in 1953.
From there it was on to junior hockey in Calgary, Moose Jaw, Yorkton and Melville and then to an 18-year pro career.
“I have always held a special place in my heart for the Okanagan Valley,” added Hicks. “It’s where I learned not only to play hockey but also where I learned valuable lessons from my coaches and teachers that set me on my path in life and professional hockey.
“I owe much gratitude to everyone there for building my confidence and competitive foundation that eventually allowed me to enjoy success at the highest level in hockey.”
While John and Jennifer Hindle didn’t win any national and world titles, they did contribute significantly to the sports and arts community in the Central Okanagan.
It was John Hindle, a former mayor of Kelowna, who came up with the idea of starting the Apple Triathlon in Kelowna in 1983, while his wife was a tireless volunteer.
They loved being involved in the community and wanted others to do likewise. They urged everyone to get out of the house and get active.
That legacy was revealed in the acceptance speech presented by their son Dan Hindle.
“It’s a great honour to be able to accept this (Bennett) award on behalf of Mom and Dad,” he said. “I’m sure they would want to encourage all the people who support sport and youth in this community to continue to do so.”
Founded in 2008, the first inductees to the Central Okanagan Sports Hall Of Fame Museum were the 1958 Kelowna Packers hockey team.
2009 – Joanne Ritchie, Rick Folk curling team, Jack Brow and the Athans family.
2010 – Jay Christensen, Don Arnold, Teddy Bears basketball team, Mervyn Andrews and Henry Tostenson.
2011 – Lawrence Nagy, Eric Tasker, Joan Campbell, Dan Bertoia and Aundrea Bertoia.
2012 – Ermina Russo, Alex Recsky, Barry Urness, 1998 Okanagan Sun and Glenn Ennis.
2013 – Brock Aynsley, Blair Chapman, Wayne North and the 1988 Sutton junior women’s curling team.
2014 — 2004 Kelowna Rockets, Glen Mervyn, Gillian Thomson and Brenda/Mike Van Tighem.
Nominations are forwarded from the general public and scrutinized by a nomination committee, a selection committee and the sports legacy committee.
More information on the Central Okanagan Sports Hall Of Fame Museum