The largest Yelnats Cup tournament ever will be filling all four of Cochrane's arenas starting Thursday morning.

For the first time since the SLS Centre opened, the tournament has spilled into the Cochrane Arena to accommodate 32 U18 teams and some 600 players. Twenty-two of them are local teams, the most U18 teams ever.

The Yelnats Cup reflects just how much minor hockey has grown over the years. It includes six divisions of U18 hockey available in Cochrane, excluding its AA Timberwolves program.

There were 10 out-of-town teams selected and many others were left on a waiting list. Most of the out-of-town teams participating are from the immediate area because Cochrane simply doesn't have enough hotel rooms.

The Yelnats Cup is a grass-roots tournament established in 2000 that has run every year, excluding 2020 and 2021 (pandemic). Fond memories, laughter, friendly competition and a few tears are at its foundation, and for many, it's the end of their minor hockey career.

"Yelnats" is "Stanley" spelled backwards and four cups modelled after the prized NHL championship trophy are presented to winners in some of the divisions.

All graduating players are called to the ice after their last game to be recognized and presented with a keepsake of their minor hockey journey.

It's something graduating minor hockey players look forward to, explains Angela Sellwood, who has chaired the tournament since 2019. Typically, your season ends abruptly with your last playoff game.

"But now, all these U18 teams know that their end of season is at Yelnats. In my experience, and a lot of the kids, it's not so disappointing when they lose in playoffs because they still have Yelnats," says Sellwood.

"It's an amazing tournament and it's a lot of fun," she says. "It's a lot of work, though."

The tournament committee includes 20 people, plus parents of each local team are allotted volunteer time slots. 

Special activities include a skills competition that is running simultaneously at all four arenas at noon on Saturday.

There's also plenty of items up for grabs at the raffle tables. Proceeds are returned to the hockey community, for such thing as arena sound system improvements, as was done last year, and supporting Cochrane Minor Hockey's hardship fund. Some of it is used for community causes, such as a food bank.

Click here for the full schedule.