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Semiahmoo hockey team stranded in Hope by flooding brought home by helicopter

Under-15 team had been in Kelowna for a hockey tournament

When faced with an emergency evacuation, those involved are often forced to make difficult choices – like what to take, and what to leave behind.

Members of Semiahmoo Minor Hockey’s U15 A2 team were faced with just such a dilemma Tuesday afternoon in Hope, as they frantically prepared to board helicopters that would get them home to South Surrey and White Rock after nearly two days stranded as a result of the flooding and related highway closures that have beset the entire eastern Fraser Valley and beyond.

So they chose to leave behind non-essentials – clothes, toothbrushes, maybe homework they’d brought with them – in favour of only the important stuff: their hockey gear.

“Well, we do have a ton of games coming up,” laughed team manager James Ceraldi, who spoke to Peace Arch News Friday, a few days after the team arrived back home.

The youth hockey team was stuck in Hope – along with hundreds of other travellers – from Sunday until their flights home Tuesday. The team had been en route from Kelowna, where they had been playing in a tournament. They had made it to the gold-medal game, losing 4-3 in a game Ceraldi described as “a heart-breaker.” And while championship games can be stressful, the on-ice action was nothing compared to what was to come.

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Fearing that bad weather was coming – “It was supposed to be snow, that’s what we’d heard,” Ceraldi said – families packed as quick as they could and got set to hit the road. Then, word came that the Coquihalla Highway was closed, and the connector between Kelowna and Merritt – might not be far behind.

“We didn’t know at the time why the Coquihalla had closed, and then our only options were to go the Lilloet route, which is a seven-plus hour drive, or to take Highway 3. So we all decided to take Highway 3… and that was one of the worst drives I’ve ever experienced,” explained Ceraldi.

“Everyone was white-knuckling it the whole way. I’ve never seen rain coming down like that before, and there were vehicles on the side of the road that must’ve been having troubles. It’s a twisty-turny highway, single lane – and there were a few patches where I think the asphalt must’ve already been washed away because suddenly we were driving over gravel.

“It was terrible, just terrible.”

Despite the awful conditions, Ceraldi said that every driver was likely as stressed as he was, “and thinking, let’s just get the horse in the barn.”

“We’re getting out of Manning Park, heading towards Hope, and you know you just have to connect with (Highway 1), turn that corner into Chilliwack and you’re home free,” he said.

“And that’s when all the messages started flying around that we were being diverted to Hope.”

The convoy of vehicles met up in a parking lot, and parents tried to figure out what to do. Limited cell service – and no data – made finding out the extent of the disaster nearly impossible.

“And we didn’t have Google Maps to try to find out if there was a different route home,” Ceraldi said.

Eventually, however, they came up with a plan. One couple – parents of a boy on the team – work for Telus, Ceraldi explained, and they were able to gain access to a Telus building – a workstation/utility room. Though the city was without power, the building had a generator, so the team had heat, power and “really good Wi-Fi.”

It was tight quarters, though, and that night everyone slept in their vehicles.

“It was a hard night,” Ceraldi said. “It was just the unknown. We wondered what was going on, how do we get organized to get out of here – is there any other route home? That kind of thing.”

The following night, half the group slept in their vehicles again, while the rest managed to find accommodations once some hotels and a bed-and-breakfast reopened.

While in Hope, another parent, who had connections to the aviation industry, started making some calls, and by Tuesday had lined up chartered helicopters to take everyone home.

Eventually, there was a break in the weather that allowed the choppers to arrive, and after “multiple trips, multiple helicopters,” everyone was home.

Just before the helicopters were to arrive, one of the parents came up with a way for the teens to get their gear home with them – they’d have to wear it. With no storage space and weight limits, heavy equipment bags and suitcases couldn’t make the trip, and a planned final flight with all the gear and luggage was cancelled because it was too late in the day.

“They were each allowed to take one stick, and they carried their skates. Everyone got dressed and was able to get on the helicopter. No hockey bags, no luggage, no extra stuff.”

Vehicles were left in a Hope parking lot, where they remain.

Semiahmoo Minor Hockey executive director Dave Newson told PAN that the U15 team was the only one from the organization that found itself stranded as a result of the floods.

“Quite an adventure for this group,” he said.

Though the trip home was a long and stressful one, Ceraldi said what he’ll mostly take from the ordeal was how the team came together, as well as how the community of Hope pitched in to help.

The local Baptist church provided them with water; Panago delivered five free pizzas when they heard an entire team was stranded; Hope residents – who Ceraldi noted were dealing with their own emergencies – dropped off blankets and coffee and other items.

The team donated back all their unused supplies to the church before they left, “and I think we brought back more than we took,” Ceraldi said.

“But we just had so many people help. Strangers helping out, people in the hockey community reaching out – and parents from the team pooling together everything they had. There was no disaster response by the government at that point, so the community stepped in.

“I’m the team manager, so I’m supposed to help take care of things, and I did what I could, but this kind of thing, it’s not in the handbook. So many people stepped up and went above and beyond for this team.”

The players, he added, were a resilient group through it all. On Thursday night, they played their first game since returning home, earning a 2-2 tie.

They showed up to the rink with one stick each, and all their gear jammed into the small hockey bags they’d last used as six-year-olds.

“It was a very strange experience, and I’m sure it’ll be one these kids remember for the rest of their lives.”

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