It was a sterling year for Brett Festerling, in 2007. The undrafted teenaged defender from Quesnel had just signed a three-year entry level contract with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks, who went on that year to win the Stanley Cup.
Festerling’s team, meanwhile, the Vancouver Giants, had, the year before, just won the Western Hockey League’s President’s Trophy and gone to the Memorial Cup tournament where they fell just short of winning it all.
In ‘07 they came up a smidge short in their pursuit of the President’s Trophy, but as host team, the Giants had an automatic berth in the Memorial Cup tournament. They pulled off the dream, winning hockey’s most difficult award, hoisting the Memorial Cup in dramatic fashion over their arch rivals Medicine Hat Tigers.
The first Giant to touch the trophy was the team’s captain…Brett Festerling.
What a Giant team they were. The 2006-07 roster included future NHLers Evander Kane, Milan Lucic, Cody Franson, Lance Bouma, Jonathon Blum, Michal Repik, Spencer Machacek, Brendan Mikkelson, Kenndal McArdle, Mario Bliznak, James Wright, Brent Regner, Craig Cunningham, and Festerling – a decade’s worth of NHL alumni for some Western Hockey League teams. Most others on the roster would have careers in other leagues as well.
All that success would gel into the team’s induction this year into the BC Hockey Hall of Fame. Festerling and his teammates will join that hallowed institution in a gala ceremony July 21 at the South Okanagan Events Centre in Penticton.
It will be a rare reunion, Festerling told The Observer. With all the different career and family paths the players and staff have respectively experienced over the past 16 years, they can’t be in touch as much as they would like, “but when we do, it’s one of those things where it doesn’t feel like any time has gone by. We did the 10-year anniversary and for 20 guys it felt like yesterday. Everyone just picked up where they left off. So, good relationships throughout.”
Alongside a strong American Hockey League presence, Festerling played 88 games in the NHL, primarily with the Ducks then five with the Winnipeg Jets, before embarking on a fruitful hockey career in the German Elite League. Two of those seasons were in Hamburg (the hometown of his grandfather), the other six in Nuermberg.
His twin brother Garrett, also a standout hockey player, likewise played the past 15 seasons in the same Deutsche Eishockey Liga. For Brett’s two seasons in Hamburg, the brothers got to wear the same uniform for the first time in their careers since they each got a seven-game stint as 15-year-olds with the 2001-02 Quesnel Millionaires.
A two-continent career gave him a deep perspective on the differences, similarities and trends of the global game.
“I think you’re seeing the North American game going very skilled, smaller and faster, puck possession,” he said. “In Sweden, if they carry the puck to the red line and they don’t see it (a favourable play), they will rim it back to their goalie. Puck possession. I think moving to Europe made me a lot better hockey player because it forced me to handle the puck more and carry the puck. In North America, I was pretty meat-and-potatoes, and I did that well. Over there, I became a more well-rounded player because I could combine the skill and possession with my meat-and-potatoes grittiness kinda thing, which they didn’t do a lot of, so that added value to my game over there. I think you’re seeing the North American game coming more towards the European game. It’s a nice hybrid.”
That high-level international lens, combined with his captain-level leadership skills and affable Quesnel upbringing have combined to put him in a unique chair. Festerling has tried a few career paths since hockey, first in the wealth management sector, which he pushed back from, then the lumber brokering he is doing today (“someone from Quesnel going into the lumber business…shocker,” he joked), but some Saturdays he has been called to sit high above the Vancouver Canucks games and provide commentary alongside Brendan Batchelor on Sportsnet 650 radio broadcasts.
“I hope I can do it some more. It was a really good way for me to get back into hockey,” he said, and put his history in the game to good use. He felt grateful for the broadcast crew who went so far to make him feel comfortable in that unusual environment. “I really enjoyed it and it was never something I would have expected myself doing.”
He and his wife, now back in Canada, have three kids, so, it’s a busy time for Festerling. He has plenty of family still in Quesnel, and he makes a point of getting back to visit when he can. Their family place on Bouchie Lake is a favourite spot. But it’s not as frequent as he’d like.
He’s getting to an age, as well, where reflection is setting in. He finds it remarkable to see Matthew and Brady Tkachuk as NHL stars, now, after playing against their dad. “I’m not that, old, am I?,” he laughs.
He is openly grateful that he got to make a long profession out of a game. He got to experience other cultures, broaden his life’s scope, and have the privilege of a team environment essentially his whole life.
He is glad he came up in hockey when he did, when the pathways were simpler. He could set the Correlieu Secondary School’s record for javelin throwing, for example. Life wasn’t all about hockey. He worries about the fracturing of hockey leagues in Canada, and the recent emphasis on academy hockey where he sees the costs being impossible for many families with talented kids, kids who have a lot to offer the sport, but who won’t have the financial resources to cross that threshold.
He also worries about family and player mental health. Too much hockey, he said, is not good for anyone.
“The whole scenario seems to take the childhood away from the child, you know. It was hard when I did it, and now I can’t imagine,” he said. “Go on a hike, go mountain biking, go play tennis. You can do all that, it will all help improve your hockey game, but it’ll be a mental escape from it and let you focus on something else and enjoy something just for what it is. (If you over-train) you’re going to eventually hate it. I have so many parents ask me ‘what should my 10-year-old work on?’ and I say ‘is it fun?’ That’s the only thing that should matter. Because if they don’t enjoy it, they’ll never be able to dig in the way they’ll need to dig in when it gets down to business. Make sure the kid has fun. That is it.”
That’s a Hall Of Fame attitude to go along with a Hall Of Fame induction.