'We live and die by the puck': 40 years on ice, Yukon Native Hockey Tournament bigger than ever

'It allows communities, people, First Nations of different tribes to come together and have an opportunity to re-acquaint themselves with their friendships, to look at how everybody is doing.'

43 teams, 6 divisions in one of the biggest annual Whitehorse events

Wayne Risby and Gord Peter, ready to hit the ice at the 40th annual Yukon Native Hockey Tournament, this weekend in Whitehorse. The two have played in every tournament. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Wayne Risby easily recalls the first Yukon Native Hockey Tournament — he was 14 years old, and anxious to be part of the fledgling event with his local team, the Ross River Renegades.

The trouble was, the event was a few hundred kilometres away in Whitehorse, and Risby's dad wasn't so keen.

"He said no," Risby recalled.

Fortunately, there was a quick change of heart.

It'll be standing-room only for many games this weekend. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

"Later on in the evening he said, 'Okay, I'll drive you.'"

That was the start of what became an annual tradition for Risby and the Yukon. The tournament — formally known as the Kilrich Building Centres Yukon Native Hockey Tournament — is marking its 40th year this weekend, and Risby hasn't missed a single one.

"I've been saying this is going to be my last one but you never know, as it gets closer you get more excited and want to be part of it."

An undated photo of the Ross River Renegades. Wayne Risby is in the back row, fifth from right. (Margaret Thomson/CBC)

'An event everybody waits for'

That first tournament in 1977 was a relatively small affair, with just a handful of teams from Yukon, most from Whitehorse. 

This year there are 43 teams from across Yukon, the N.W.T. and Northern B.C. It's become one of the biggest annual events in Whitehorse, if not the biggest.

"It's an event that everybody waits for," says Gord Loverin, a local filmmaker and tournament alumnus.

His new short film, Yukon Ice Bandits, is about the tournament's history and its significance to First Nations communities. It was screened in Whitehorse this week, and will also be screened during the weekend tournament.  

'We live and die by the puck, so to speak,' said filmmaker Gord Loverin. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

"Hockey is in your blood, it's in Yukon First Nations blood. We live and die by the puck, so to speak," he said.

"It allows communities, people, First Nations of different tribes to come together and have an opportunity to re-acquaint themselves with their friendships, to look at how everybody is doing."

Jeanie Dendys, Yukon Minister of Tourism and Culture, past president of the the Yukon Indian Hockey Association, and a self-described "hockey mom", says Loverin's film is significant because it also shows how important the tournament was for young people who'd been through the residential school system.

"It helped them to survive, in a lot of ways," she said, as she watched a game on Friday. "It saved lives back then, it's saving lives today.

"The more that we put into our youth, to give them opportunities, to be involved in team sport, to be focussed on their goals — we're going to have stronger generations coming forward."

'Back in the day.' Undated photo from the Yukon Native Hockey Tournament in Whitehorse. (submitted by Wayne Risby)

'They come... they get hooked'

The event has now become so big and so popular there's talk of adding another day to future tournaments.

 Michelle Dawson-Beattie, current president of the Yukon Indian Hockey Association, says whenever registration opens in February, there's a rush. By the end of the first registration day, all but a few spots on the roster are full.

"We're getting calls from Manitoba asking if they can bring teams up, and we have players from all over the country coming and talking about this tournament," she said.

"Then they come and they get hooked and they still keep coming back."

Wayne Risby, however, feels the tournament's success has come at a bit of a cost: the loss of a small-town feel. The play has become faster, tougher, and more competitive. 

"Back in the day, the community showed up with their team and when you went and played certain teams, the two communities would show up and cheer."

Now, he says, "it's drifted to a lot of importing players, and somewhat stacking of teams, and I think we've sort of lost some of the community concept of it," he said.

Still, Risby recognizes the tournament as a great success story that people can take pride in.

'It's the biggest stage they'll play on all year, or maybe for many years.' (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

Dawson-Beattie says for many players, coming from smaller communities like Ross River, or Inuvik, or Fort Nelson, "it's the biggest stage they'll play on all year, or maybe for many years," she said.

"Just to see the pride on their faces when they step onto that ice, and they get to play in front of a crowd of people like their peers, co-workers, family — it's really great to see, and that's what makes me do it or that's why I keep doing it."

The tournament, which began Friday, continues through until Sunday night.

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      with files from Cheryl Kawaja