When the Hoonah Old Timers claimed their second straight championship in the Legendary C Bracket of the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament last year, it was the passing of an era.
Several of the players, who had been playing in the tournament for over 20 years each, decided it was time to retire and announced their intentions during the tournament.
Now, one year later, the Hoonah Old Timers are back for the 55th annual Gold Medal Tournament. But it's not the same group of players. The village held tryouts earlier this year and a final 12 players were picked from more than 30 who tried out for the squad. Bracket MVP Greg Garcia will be back, but he'll have a different supporting cast when the tournament opens play today at the Juneau-Douglas High School main gym.
This year's tournament is dedicated to Herb Didrickson of Sitka, who was the first player inducted into the Gold Medal Hall of Fame. The tournament's official opening ceremonies will be at noon on Wednesday, even though games have been taking place since Sunday.
"Hoonah will be a lot quicker this year," said Andy Lee, who plays for the Angoon ANS team and has been playing in Gold Medal for more than 20 years himself. "This is the most wide-open I've ever seen it. Usually there are two or three teams you know will be there, but this year there's no clear favorite. Petersburg is a dark horse, they've got some big boys."
Jeff Kasler, who played for the Klukwan Chilkats of Skagway when they took second place the last two years in the Legendary C Bracket, thinks this might be the year for a new champion.
"I would hope so," Kasler said when asked if Klukwan might win its first title in 33 years. "I heard Petersburg will be tough, and Kip Howard will play for Kake. It's not going to be any easier."
The Legendary C Bracket, which is for players age 36 and older, is just one of the four divisions competing in this year's tournament. The Classic A Bracket is for the city teams, while the Mighty B Bracket is for the village squads. The Premiere Women's Bracket is in its third year.
Until this year, the Legendary C Bracket had been open to players age 35-older. But this year the bracket will start making a one-year age limit increase over five years, ending when the age limit is 40-older in 2005.
"This year you have to be 36 and next year you have to be 37," said Claude Roberts, who is serving as tournament co-chair this year with Bill Tompkins. "We're eventually going to 40. We've been discussing this for years and the players knew it was coming."
The Hoonah Old Timers aren't the only defending champion in the field. The Klawock Prince of Wales team is the two-time defending women's champion, Sitka won last year's A Bracket and the Haines Merchants won last year's B Bracket title.
Most of the same teams from previous years are in the B Bracket, C Bracket and Women's Bracket, but there is some new blood in the A Bracket.
Besides Sitka, the other three teams are the Juneau-Tabby's Arctic Lights and two new teams, a squad from Fairbanks and a team called Tenakee Tribe. Both of the new teams are organized by Juneau men, with Kevin Casperson heading up the Fairbanks squad and John Martin for Tenakee.
"We're pushing over 2,000 people into town with Gold Medal, and that means $1.5 million to $2 million to the community," Roberts said.
Roberts said the money from the sale of programs and advertising in the program books goes toward funding Lion's Club scholarship programs for Juneau students, while the money from the gate (after expenses and team travel payouts) goes toward several other Lion's Club projects like Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, the disabled ski program, REACH and others.
"One-hundred-percent of the net goes back to the community," Roberts said.
Charles Bingham can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.