'Words can't even explain': What the Yukon Native Hockey Tournament meant to one young athlete

Gavin Olito laced up with the Lower Post Eagles for the first time this year. The team even brought a very special jersey out of retirement for him.

The annual tournament is special to many, but for Gavin Olito, this year's was unforgettable

'I just feel like when I'm on the ice that nothing else matters,' said Olito. (Steve Hossack/CBC)

Hundreds of players, dozens of teams, three days of action.

And for Gavin Olito, this year's Yukon Native Hockey Tournament in Whitehorse was an unforgettable experience.

"Words can't even explain how honoured I am just to be on this team — to be able to come up here and be with family," he said between games with his team, the Lower Post Eagles.

The 18-year-old laced up for the Eagles for the first time this year, and he wore a special number.  

Gavin's brother, Johnny, was still a teenager when he died in 1994. Johnny had worn number 10 with the Eagles.

The team retired the jersey after Johnny died, but brought it out of retirement this year, for Gavin to wear.

Gavin Olito, 18, wore his late brother Johnny's jersey while playing with the Lower Post Eagles this weekend in Whitehorse. (Steve Hossack/CBC)

"It just means a lot that they're letting me have this opportunity to wear the number, wear it with pride. And that's all I can do, wear it with pride and give it everything I've got out there", he said.

Olito's family moved from Watson Lake to Grand Prairie, Alta., to provide him with a better lifestyle, and a hockey-rich environment.

Olito says he used hockey as a positive outlet.

"I just feel like when I'm on the ice that nothing else matters ... It clears my mind," he said.

Olito says the tournament gave him a chance to compete against cousins he had yet to face off with. It was also a platform for players to show off their skills, he said.

"It's definitely an opportunity for Aboriginals in the Yukon, and all over Canada, that come to play in this tournament to showcase their talent in front of other First Nations."

'Young team of warriors'

The tournament — which marked its 40th anniversary this year — has grown from a grassroots, community-based gathering into what is undoubtedly one of the largest Indigenous sporting events in the North.

Teams represent communities in Northwest Territories, northern British Columbia, and Yukon. But the event itself brings in fans and players from all over the country. 

Tournament founder Doug Jim said he had no idea the event would become as big and significant as it has. (Steve Hossack/CBC)

For tournament founder Doug Jim, it's weekend like no other. He says the original idea was simply to give young First Nations hockey players an outlet to compete, in a fun and friendly environment.

"I never thought for one minute that it was going to grow as big as it did, or a good as it did," he said. "I feel great that I've helped put this tournament together.

"What I'd love to see is, I'd love to see a young kid come out of here and play in the NHL. That would make my day," he said.

Joe ' Copper' Jack says for many players, hockey is used as a tool to address their own personal struggles. (Steve Hossack/CBC)

Joe "Copper" Jack is one of the first Indigenous players to represent Yukon in varsity level (college) hockey down south.
He says for many involved, the sport is used as a tool to address their own personal struggles.

"I would say it's probably the biggest positive effect for Yukon First Nations, in regard to their healing journey. Trying to reconcile what has happened to them in a positive way, and to feel good about themselves," Jack said.

"We're being very careful in trying to form again this young team of warriors that's going to be addressing other obstacles that they're going to be facing in their life."