National Aboriginal Hockey Championships.
By Ashwin Freyne. Photos and video by Agnieszka Pajor.
“We used to play a lot of hockey back then, because that was all the sport we had during the long winter months,” says William Carlick describing his early days in sport at the Lower Post Residential School in northern British Columbia. Now he is the Elder Rep for Team North in the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships (NAHC), and he could not be happier that Whitehorse hosted the 2019 event.
Carlick is no stranger to hockey in the Yukon. He played in the second ever First Nations Hockey Tournament in 1977, and came second overall. Since then he has put teams together, coached northern teams and organized the tournament for 10 years with his wife during the 1990’s. But this is the first time the tournament has been hosted in Whitehorse and it is clear that Carlick feels strongly about this event. When asked what he wants to see from this tournament, he says he hopes it will “give the incentive to the First Nations in our community, you can be like this, you can do this, all you have to do is put your mind to it”.
The National Aboriginal Hockey Championships having been taking place in a different city in Canada each year since 2001. This year’s tournament saw 9 male teams and 9 female teams duke it out on the ice, with first nations players from every province and territory represented.
In the men’s division Manitoba was the big winner, with Saskatchewan and Manitoba in second and third respectively. In the women’s division Saskatchewan took gold, with silver going to Manitoba and Ontario taking bronze. Yukon was represented in Team North, a squad consisting of players from the Yukon, North West Territories and Nunavut.
Beth Hudson is the events manager with the Aboriginal Sports Circle of the North West Territories, and she sees this tournament as an amazing way to support indigenous youth in sport and recreation, and a fantastic way to connect northern players. Although winning the tournament would be great she is quick to point out many of the other benefits this tournament brings to youth involved. “Hockey is an escape for them from all the trauma that they have to deal with” says Hudson. She also touts the amazing opportunity tournaments like this afford young players, some of whom may have never even left their community’s before.
Unlike other teams that host tryouts, the geographic distances between communities in the north make meeting before the tournament very difficult. Instead, Team North relies on scouting, and for many of these players, this tournament is the first time that they are even meeting their teammates. That being said, it is clear talking to players, that this sort of travel is one of the most enticing parts of the sport, outside of the game itself.
Julia Carol and Savanna Paul play for the Atlantic team and see this tournament as just another example of the unique experiences, great people and beautiful places that hockey has allowed them to access. “I’m in Whitehorse, Yukon, across the country from where I live, and what other way would I get that opportunity than without hockey.” says Carol.
Watching the 2019 championships, it is clear there is a lot of positive energy in the arena. Although the games are highly competitive, every player and coach we spoke with talks about the benefits of the sport that have transferred outside of the game. It is obvious that this is as much a cultural event as it is a sport’s tournament, and if you managed to catch a few of Team North’s games you may have noticed one thing in particular; a staff with a feather on it. When asked about the significance of the staff that is skated around the rink before each game, Carlick says “that when they skate around the ice surface they are creating a safe space for all players, not only for north players, but to all players”. It’s moments like these that make the NAHC so much more than just another hockey tournament.