NHL players may use lockout time to hit the golf courses

DETROIT, - What's a Red Wing to do when grounded?

Due to the National Hockey League labor dispute that has resulted in a lockout, it may be months, or even a year, before hockey players can do any on-ice scoring. But professional athletes love the thrill of competition - they thrive on it - and with the Red Wings on ice, plenty of the players are likely to take advantage of the time off with sticks in their hands - golf sticks, that is!

It's widely known that hockey players are proficient and avid golfers. After all, the golf swing and the hockey slap-shot share fundamental skill mechanics, and hockey players have every summer off. When they do have games in the spring and fall, they're at night! It's not too distant a memory to recall former Edmonton Oiler goaltender Grant Fuhr bringing his clubs to a playoff series with the Detroit Red Wings so that he could take a crack at Oakland Hills.

And when the Wings won the Stanley Cup a few years ago, they toted it all around Oakhurst Golf and Country Club in Clarkston in the back of a golf cart.

Ken Holland, the poised and successful Red Wings general manager, plays his golf in a lovely though little-known area of Western Canada called the Okanagan Valley, near Kelowna, British Columbia. Holland is a native of the town of Vernon, which is home to the Predator Ridge Golf Resort - one of the valley's premier courses.

Predator Ridge's claim to fame is that it hosted the 2000 Skins game, featuring Mike Weir, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and the winner - Fred Couples. Garcia bought two rental cottages on-site and John Daly held an exhibition there. But it is Detroit Red Wing players that Holland brings each year for their own go at the pristine, 27-hole, playground during an annual charity fundraiser he stages at Predator Ridge, so named because of the wolves, bear, cougars and birds of prey that inhabit the wilds surrounding the course.

As many as 50 other NHL players frequent Predator Ridge and own property in the "The Okanagan" area, including Chris Osgood, Shawn Burr, Brent Gilchrest and Marty McSorley. Curiously, and this is good news for the currently inactive NHL players, the Okanagan Valley and its flagship town of Kelowna, a clean, quaint small town with a casino, lie in Canada's only desert climate.

While Vancouver, 250 miles to the southwest, gets the precipitation expected in that part of North America, the mountains between the two cities create a "rain shadow," which sucks the water from clouds as they head east and spares The Okanagan from rain and heavy snow. More than 300 miles to the northeast lies Calgary. Most air travelers from Detroit to the area fly through Seattle via Northwest Airlines, connecting with Horizon/Alaska Airways.

Other notable courses in the resort area include Gallagher's Canyon, Harvest Golf Club, and the 36-hole Okanagan Golf Club, each of which is carved through rocky, forested mountain terrain, and the air is nowhere more fragrant and fresh than at Harvest, which is laid out through working apple orchards.

While the holes at The Harvest are more wide open than at the other courses, the benefit is a sweeping, panoramic view of Kelowna below and Lake Okanagan, which looks like a huge sapphire-tinted mirror lying in between the mountain ridges. Quaint resorts and beaches surround the lake, which is 70 miles long but never too wide for the smallest of boats. Dragon Boat racing, in fact, is a popular pastime among Okanagan locals.

The Okangan locals, needless to say, love hockey and love having the NHL players in town.

"There are hockey players around here all of the time and they are terrific guests and members," says Margaret Penner," director of sales and marketing for Predator Ridge. "We leave them alone and respect their privacy, which I am sure they appreciate."

Almost 60 wineries grace the area, and Mission Hill Family Estate is a must for a tour and tasting. It's beautiful and elaborate monastic facility, built into the hillside overlooking the lake, is artistic and astonishing - like a dreamy vision made real.

Quite frankly, were I an NHL player, I'd be happy not to be lacing them up right now and happy to be cooling my heels at The Okanagan. And after I played golf all day, I might even pop in to catch a Kelowna Rockets Western Hockey League game!

The verdict

The Okanagan is a breath of fresh air - literally. Not overly touristy or chintzy in any way. It's no-nonsense, in a very clean, Canadian way. The golf courses have not been built by big-name "designer" architects, but the scenery is unstoppable, the golf good enough and varied, and the hospitality as friendly as can be.

Places to stay

You canstay and play at Predator RidgePredatorRidge.com(888) 578-6688, butif you want a more varied, waterfront experience, Manteo Resort's WaterfrontHotels and Villas are outstanding.Manteo.comor phone (800)-445-5255.For more information, log on to TourismKelowna.orgor phone (800)663-4345.

Places to eat

Predator Ridge is set alone, apart from the city of Kelowna, which has plenty of restaurants of every variety and a casino. Dining at Predator Ridge, or the water front restaurant at Manteo Resort will not disappoint, especially the super-charged, created breakfasts at Manteo.

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