Seventeen hours. That’s how long a team of players and parents from Winnipeg in southeast Manitoba, Canada, drove to attend the Three Blind Refs soccer tournament in Kalispell last weekend. In perspective, the 968-mile trek would be the equivalent of a local team traveling to Las Vegas.
All for two memorable days of youth soccer.
In the past 21 years, the Three Blind Refs tournament at the Kidsports Complex has grown from a small local gathering into an esteemed and magnetic event, attracting teams from across the western U.S. and Canada.
This year’s two-day jamboree drew 165 teams and nearly 2,500 players, the most ever. That makes it one of the largest youth soccer tournaments — if not the largest — in the U.S. (The annual Kohl’s US Youth Soccer American Cup in Texas calls itself the largest; it frequently features 1,200 players.)
More than 300 games were played both Saturday and Sunday atop 23 fields, including seven fields in Whitefish and two at Glacier High School this year to accommodate the record size.
“I’m totally amazed,” said Rob Riley, the tournament director the last 15 years who works with the Flathead Soccer Club, the organization that hosts the event.
The tournament featured recreational action for boys and girls of all ages and abilities, from beginners to skilled teenagers. Dozens of local volunteers helped out and 120 referees went to work, sometimes overseeing five separate matches each day.
“Whether they know it or not, they are playing international friendlies. It’s really neat. This is really an opportunity to see what they play like in Canada or other states. It’s good for them,” Bob Swan, a longtime ref, said of the kids’ opportunity to play unfamiliar teams from Canada and elsewhere.
When the first Three Blind Refs tournament was held more than 20 years ago, it took place at the four fields near the city airport, referred to as the “Sewer Fields” for their proximity to the sewage treatment plant. Two other fields at Evergreen Junior High were also used.
There were 35 teams at the inaugural event; last weekend had 65 teams just from Canada.
In the late 1990s, the City of Kalispell began developing an expansive hub for youth recreation on the empty school trust land north of town. Today Kidsports Complex is truly a regional destination, as last weekend’s event illustrated. The 138-acre site frequently hosts football, baseball and soccer events, among much more. In late July, the complex will host its most prominent event to date, the Cal Ripkin 12U Northwest Regional Tournament.
On any given day in the summer, an average of 5,350 people use the fields during the week and another 5,000 on the weekend, according to a survey the organization conducted in late 2010.
“It’s a major economic boost at this time when nothing else is really going on and the tourists haven’t starting coming through yet,” Riley said of Kidsports.
He added, looking out at the green pasture of the complex, “These are the nicest fields in the state. They truly are.”