January 8, 2016 11:22 am
Updated: January 8, 2016 2:59 pm

BRIT a favourite destination for out-of-town hoopsters

WATCH ABOVE: The BRIT classic is one of Western Canada's biggest high school basketball tournaments, and is a preferred destination for many top out-of-town teams. Ryan Flaherty reports.

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SASKATOON – If you’re planning a winter getaway, chances are Saskatoon isn’t on the list of potential destinations. That is, unless you’re a fan of high school basketball.

Since 1968, some of the best high school teams in Western Canada and beyond have converged on Bedford Road Collegiate every January for the BRIT Classic. After nearly five decades, the tournament has established itself as one of the premier events of its kind and has become a rite of passage for players and coaches alike.

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“You almost feel like an NBA player coming in here,” said Phil Penner, head coach of Winnipeg’s Garden City Fighting Gophers, who are making their sixth appearance at the Bedford Road Invitational Tournament (BRIT).

“I remember my first year Jared Ogungbemi-Jackson, who went on to be an all-Canadian at the University of Calgary, was signing autographs and getting his picture taken with little kids. You don’t get that every day.”

Penner’s son Cole, a Gophers guard, remembers coming to BRIT with his father as a youngster. Now he gets a chance to play in it himself.

“You walk in the gym and you can tell the whole tournament is a complete culture,” he said. “The atmosphere is incredible, the amount of production put into it is incredible, and I think it really brings out the best in all the teams.”

Like the rest of his teammates, Garden City guard Marcel Arruda-Welch is making his BRIT debut this year, but he’s been here before to cheer on his older brother. That experience fuelled Arruda-Welch’s desire to one day play in the tournament himself.

“It was crazy. It was super-loud,” he recounted. “Sometimes I had to leave the gym because it was getting so loud and it freaked me out. But it was crazy to watch.”

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The raucous atmosphere, for which BRIT is well-known, is a big reason why the event is held in such high regard by visiting teams.

“Obviously it’s just a great experience but I think what it really helps us with is preparation for our big games in the provincials, when we’ll fill the [University of Manitoba] and there will be 2,000 people in there,” said Phil Penner. “You don’t get that in a regular game so it’s hard to replicate.”

Garden City has never won the tournament. Their best result was a runner-up finish in 2013, the last time they took part. Although winning BRIT isn’t the Gophers’ ultimate goal, they would like nothing more than to bring a title back to Winnipeg.

A 77-33 victory over the host Bedford Road Redhawks in their first game certainly doesn’t hurt.

“I think it would be incredible. It would be a huge marking stone for our school, first of all, and our city as well,” said Cole Penner.

Not only that, but a championship trophy makes for a pretty impressive souvenir from one of high school hoops’ prime destinations.

© 2016 Shaw Media

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