Indigenous youth hockey teams lace up at the Little NHL

Around 3,000 players from more than 200 Indigenous youth hockey teams across the province are lacing up in Mississauga this week for the annual Little Native Hockey League (Little NHL) tournament.

This year's tournament draws around 3,000 players from across the province

Coach Keith Doxtator (right) works with a member of the Oneida atoms in advance of the Little NHL tournament. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

The puck drops today for youth hockey players at the Little Native Hockey League (Little NHL) tournament in Mississauga, Ont. 

It promises to be a a busy week for players and their families. This year, the tournament expects more than 200 teams and about 3,000 players from across the province.

That's about a 15-fold increase from the tournament's beginning: a 1971 event that drew about 200 players total. 

"Every year we have a new record set at the tournament," said Oneida atom coach Keith Doxtator, who first attended the third-annual Little NHL as a pee-wee hockey player.

For Doxtator's family and others, the tournament has become a third-generation tradition. Doxtator's two sons played in the tournament throughout their childhoods and teen years; today, he's coaching his grandkids. 

"Hockey is life for a lot of us," he said.

"It's just a natural thing to do to get involved with our community."

"Everybody plays, everybody gets equal ice and we're going to have fun. That's what it's all about," says Doxtator. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

The community spirit is a key part of the appeal for Felicia Huff's family, as well. Huff is part of the Chippewa of the Thames First Nation, and her daughter, Patty, plays in the Little NHL this week with the CMO United girls' bantam team. 

"The community really gets behind this tournament ... Families work hard to raise money [and] to make sure their athletes are prepared to compete at that level," she said.

"There's so many benefits to hockey, and as far as family goes I absolutely look forward to being able to go out and cheer for them."

Famous alumni

Players with the Oneida atoms rec team practice at the arena in Mount Brydges, Ont. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC News)

The Little NHL can also be an opportunity to catch a glimpse of players before they make it big. 

According to the Little NHL, former players have since gone on to play at the college or university level, in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) and the National Hockey League (NHL). 

"So many great memories from when I played in the Little NHL tournaments. Best wishes to all the communities and players participating this year," wrote former Buffalo Sabre Cody McCormick on Twitter yesterday.

Some famous alumni have been known to stop by the tournament to spend time with the new generation, and help them build contacts within the industry, said Doxtator. 

"I think it's really important for the kids to have role models like that," he said.

Still, win or lose, Doxtator said fun and sportsmanship are the orders of the day at the Little NHL. 

"Everybody plays, everybody gets equal ice and we're going to have fun. That's what it's all about," he said.

The tournament wraps up March 15.