Long-running Indigenous hockey tournament comes home, aims to grow

The Wallace Bernard Memorial Native Youth Hockey Tournament in Cape Breton was held for the first time in Membertou First Nation, thanks to the rink complex that opened in the community last fall.

New rink in Membertou makes it possible for organizers to expand annual event

Sipekne'katik faces off against Eskasoni in the peewee championship game at the Wallace Bernard Memorial Native Youth Hockey Tournament. (Facebook)

Now that it has finally come home after 43 years of being played outside the community, one of the longest-running Indigenous hockey tournaments in Canada is looking for bigger things in the future.

Until last fall, the Wallace Bernard Memorial Native Youth Hockey Tournament, organized by Membertou First Nation, had to use venues outside the community because the band didn't have a rink.

That changed last September with the opening of the Membertou Sport and Wellness Centre, where the 2017 version of the tournament — the 44th annual — was played this past weekend.

"The pride that our people are feeling from having it come home after 44 years — it's awesome," said event co-ordinator Mike Isadore.

40 teams

The tournament is named after its founder, Isadore's grandfather Wally Bernard, who was a former band councillor and noted hockey player. 

Band councillor Graham Marshall shared Isadore's enthusiasm, noting that close to 40 teams and more than 800 players from Cape Breton and the mainland took part. He expects those numbers to grow in the years to come.

Isadore said, for the first time, Membertou had enough players to enter a team in the novice division — in fact, it had enough for two.

"That's a division where we could never put a team because we never had enough children," he said.

Teams from 'everywhere'

Promoting the tournament as an event for all First Nations people has become one of his priorities, he said. He plans to encourage Indigenous communities to start fundraising campaigns to help send more participants to the Wally Bernard.

"I'd like to eventually have teams from Ontario, from Manitoba, from everywhere, come. In order to display the talent that is out there, it's great to have that opportunity," said Isadore.

He said the only Indigenous hockey tournament running longer than the one in Membertou is the Little NHL in Ontario, which started in 1971, two years earlier than the Cape Breton event.

With files from Information Morning Cape Breton