The Winter Sizzler Volleyball Tournament, now an annual Spokane tradition, actually has a rich history of international volleyball friendships going back almost 30 years, where it got its start in British Columbia. Players and spectators who are new to the tournament may not know this. Newbies (tournament “veterans” of less than 4 years) know it as the ultimate “play and party” tournament of the year, put on specifically for adults (no juniors allowed, sorry/not sorry!) with uncensored 90’s Hip Hop blasting throughout the day and prizes for the best dirty jokes. The current tournament is hosted in a state-of-the-art facility where all play is on sport court surrounding a central, elevated beer garden with views of the entire tournament and complete with a burrito bar, Bloody Mary bar, and big screen TVs (in case the Seahawks are playing).
But many years ago, things were very different and this tournament had much humbler roots. To help give you a better idea of how this tournament has morphed and evolved over the last 27-odd years, I’ll share a historical summary from the former tournament director:
“The Winter Sizzler started in 1990 through Chris New, at College of the Rockies, formerly East Kootenay Community College. The college did not have an athletic program at the time but always had some competitive volleyballers looking for some competition. The college had an unofficial co-ed team that would travel to North Idaho College, Selkirk College, and Lethbridge to participate in club tournaments. Chris's goal was to host a competitive co-ed tournament opportunity where we could enter our own co-ed team and support those other community teams who were looking for different opportunities to compete.
The goal was to try and attract 12 teams to compete in one competitive format. This was viewed as a difficult challenge; however, 14 teams did register. Although Cranbrook is a small city, its location as a midpoint to “meet in the middle” was a large part of the tournament's initial success. Quickly, word spread that for a short 3-4-hour drive, teams from Spokane, could face off with teams from Lethbridge or Calgary. You never saw a Spokane team go to Calgary or vice versa, so this helped the tourney grow quickly. Each year, the tourney continued to expand, attracting as many as 34 teams. However, the local court space and banquet space became maxed-out and the tournament was officially capped at 32 teams. It was generally regarded that this tournament was the largest “competitive” tourney in Western Canada. There were bigger tournaments but they often had recreational divisions as well as competitive.
Although the Sizzler grew quickly, it still remained a fairly tightknit group over the years. The quality of the Sizzler competition was something we were always proud of. Even the “C” and “D” division games on the Sunday were fantastic competitive ball. Over the years, the competition just became stronger and stronger with many college, university team players, and national team prospects.
Sticking with the “community feel”, we always welcomed announcements of engagement, weddings, anniversaries, babies born, and birthdays to celebrate everyone who attended. Some marriages and relationships even started at the Winter Sizzler! In the early years, the Sizzler “after party” started off at the local bar, The Cactus Parrot Club, where the teams participated in fun games such as quiz show spinoffs, and stupid human tricks. It blossomed into a buffet style dinner with a “joke-off” which found team members getting up on stage and telling their best jokes for some very good laughs and a few prizes! You could always count on Joe Garza, Rand Wayling, and Ben Spiller to always have a few good jokes.
The bar then changed to Doc Herty’s, where the dancing and drinking were plentiful! The Inn of the South then changed to the Heritage Inn and the bar changed to Monarch’s but the dancing and drinking didn’t change much! After a while, we recruited the Yuk Yuks Comedy Club comedians to come and entertain the international Sizzler crowd. Of course, this led to the heckling of the US players and some jeering back at the comedian – all in good fun of course! From “joke-offs” and games, to Chad Coupland’s Fishbowl drinks, semi-naked "locomotion" dances through the bar, stolen vacuum cleaners, and some unmentionable deeds that took place on the desk of the hotel general manager’s office, there were always a few good stories that came out of the Sizzler.
It was always fun on Monday following the tourney, to listen to the local radio and read the paper to see how the media folks would edit and change some of the team names from all the division winners and finalists which we faxed in the day before. It was even funnier when a team name was read out verbatim, that probably should have been edited for primetime listening. I am sure that there will be some risqué names at future Sizzlers too.
At the 15th Annual Sizzler social, we moved on from jugs (or pitchers) of beer for each team to doing shots and a Winter Sizzler "toast,” a new Sizzler tradition. Over the years, we had Sizzler participants who travelled from as far away as Hawaii, California, and Anchorage to attend the event and our hardcore Vancouverites booked fights months in advance. Most teams were from Calgary, Spokane, Lethbridge, Kelowna, Edmonton, and local teams throughout the East and West Kootenay’s such as, Invermere, Nelson, Castlegar, and Cranbrook. The camaraderie that was built around this tournament was almost legendary. When Chris took a new position with the City of Cranbook in 2008, Lisa Ramsey, who had been a major part of the tourney leading up to that point, continued to carry the torch for the next few years. Unfortunately, priorities change and the college chose not to continue the tournament. Chris and Lisa were happy to pass the torch to Kyle and Anna Twohig, and hope that the momentum of the Sizzler will continue and that it will continue to be that special tourney that everyone looks forward to each year.”
Now, re-reading this Sizzler Tournament history from the past Directors actually made me tear up. I have so many amazing memories from this tournament and most of them are not about volleyball at all, they are about the friendships. When I first played in this tournament, it’s because the infamous Chad Coupland (my club coach and now friend) introduced me to the tournament and let me play on his team. Years later, I played in it with Kyle when we first met and our team name was always “Fishbowl” to keep with Sizzler tradition. We even won the tourney one year (2009) and our team name is stamped on the Sizzler trophy as irrefutable proof. We will also choose to conveniently forget that the longstanding tournament champions, Smash, were not present that year. As anyone who has played in this tournament knows, they are tough to beat and remain our current tourney champs multiple years (and children) later.
Due to having no director to run it, the tournament was not held in 2012 and a unanimous outcry was heard from the volleyball community all the way from Spokane to Calgary, so we asked the College of the Rockies folks if we could continue to run the tournament in Spokane. 2013 was the first year that Kyle and I ran the event, bringing in 39 teams and making it the largest it had ever been. The facility at the Convention Center has since become a huge draw, offering a “Nationals” like playing experience but with a Sizzler twist of an elevated beer garden in the middle of the playing area. In 2014, we hosted 51 teams and in 2015 and 2016, we hosted around 64 teams. This year, with a lot of shoe-horning, we squeezed in an astounding 80 teams! We had around 700 adult players compete in this year’s event, making it the largest indoor adult volleyball tournament in the PNW. Each year we've thrown this event it has been the largest it's ever been.
Although there have growing pains and challenges along the way, we are so grateful for being trusted to inherit the responsibility of this very special tournament and its unique traditions. The tournament has never been about making money (trust me, we don’t), or winning money, or being the fanciest tournament. Every time someone suggests that we change “this” or do “that” instead, we are always internally guided in our decisions by its longstanding traditions. Before we change or “improve” anything, we always ask ourselves questions like: “Is this in line with Sizzler tradition?” “How will this affect the player experience?” The one and only reason we run this massive tournament each year is for you guys. It’s for our friends. It’s for the players. This will always be a player-focused tournament while we run it.
Things are a little different now. We all play in the same gym instead of being spread out over 3-4 school gyms across town (and sometimes other nearby towns) and vying for the right to play in the best gym on Sunday (the college). The after-party bar is no longer in the basement of the hotel and the legal drinking age is no longer 19 (Canadian law). But we’ve tried to keep as many traditions alive as possible, which is why we have a “joke-off,” why we have Fishbowls, why the ball is “out” if it touches the ceiling, and why there are risqué team names (among other Sizzler traditions). It’s also why this is first and foremost a friendly tournament where you have more clout if you can compete all day and then party all night with your “competitors.” Many things have changed and evolved with this tournament over the years but the best part is seeing the same familiar faces every single year. It fills our hearts to be a part of this very special volleyball community and this tournament that is more like an annual reunion than anything else.
So, if you are new to this tournament you are now part of our shared tradition and years of friendship and competition. When you play in this tournament or tell others to play in this tournament please be reminded of its longstanding and rich history. There’s a reason why the Sizzler is the Sizzler and we plan on keeping it that way.