Puck drops at National Aboriginal Hockey Championships in Whitehorse
'Anybody who comes for the first time is shocked at the quality of the hockey,' says organizer
Hundreds of young Indigenous hockey players from across Canada are in Whitehorse this week, for the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships.
It's the first time the annual tournament has come north of 60.
"It's exciting," said Jeff Spencer, who has been chair of the event's working group since the first tournament, in 2002.
"You know, it's a real logistical challenge to get up north, given the flights, and given the regions coming in and cost involved, but ... we're so happy to be here."
The event, which begins Tuesday, is a showcase for elite Bantam and Midget-aged Indigenous players. There are boys' and girls' teams, representing all parts of Canada.
"Anybody who comes for the first time is shocked at the quality of the hockey," Spencer said.
He said there are many high-calibre players that just don't have the same opportunities to play elite hockey, because they come from small and isolated communities. The tournament is meant to "remove those barriers," Spencer said.
'A crazy atmosphere in the rink'
It's also a major cultural event, where young people from different parts of the country can share with and learn about each other.
"It really gives them the pride of playing for their [First] Nation, playing for their regions, at a national event," he said.
"Add in flags, and painting, and the colours, and the cheering, and their cultural identities of our regions to that — it makes it such a crazy atmosphere in the rink."
The Yukon First Nations Hockey Association put in the bid to host the tournament in Whitehorse. The association said last year an economic analysis predicted the week-long event could bring more than $1.4 million into the community.
Spencer said more and more communities are taking note of the event, and recent years have brought "international-quality bids" to host it.
He said he's been with the tournament since the beginning because it's so rewarding to see Indigenous players go on to bigger things.
"Seeing Brady Keeper face off in Ottawa this year with the Florida Panthers, seeing Ethan Bear in Edmonton, Zach Whitecloud signing, Brig[ette] Lacquette, Jamie Lee Rattray, these girls playing for Team Canada — that's why you keep doing it," he said.
"It gives our youth an opportunity that they don't have otherwise."
The first game was scheduled to begin at 8 a.m. Tuesday at the Takhini Arena. Games will also be played through the week at the Canada Games Centre.