They didn't win — but they don't mind: Girls from remote First Nation play in 1st hockey tournament

When Eabametoong First Nation's first girls hockey team finished their first competitive hockey game in Thunder Bay, Ont., they skated to centre ice, shouting: 'We won! We won!' The scoreboard didn't reflect their view, but the players weren't going to let that stop the celebration.

'It was the greatest feeling to see your girls lose humbly and still show love and respect for one another'

The team of preteen girls from Eabametoong First Nation chartered a plane to Sioux Lookout, then made a 400-kilometre bus trip to get to the All-Native Goodwill Hockey Tournament in Thunder Bay, Ont. (Jody Porter/CBC)

When Eabametoong First Nation's first girls hockey team finished their first competitive hockey game in Thunder Bay, Ont., this week they skated to centre ice shouting: 'We won! We won!'

The scoreboard did not reflect their view. 

A team made up mostly of boys — big boys — from Couchiching First Nation scored so many goals against the girls team that the timekeeper stopped posting them. (The Facebook page for the All-Native Goodwill Hockey Tournament says the score was 40-0)

Still, at the end of the game, the Rez Girls 64 team skated to centre ice, threw their arms around each other in a giant group hug and collapsed in a heap of giggles.

"It was the greatest feeling to see your girls lose humbly and still show love and respect for one another," said Candi Chin Sang, one of two co-coaches for the team of 10- to 12-year-old girls. "Their positivity is infectious."

Coach Leslie Campbell gives the Rez Girls 64 team a pep talk during the intermission of their first competitive game. (Jody Porter/CBC)

The team started the year with no equipment and no idea how they'd ever raise the money to afford a trip out of their First Nation, located 400 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay, to experience tournament play.

A surprise donation of equipment from a high school student in Markham, Ont., started a flood of goodwill for the team. A $45,000 grant came from the Arthur and Audrey Cutten Foundation, and was facilitated by financial planning service Scotia Wealth Management. And with it, the dream of playing against other teams got a little closer to reality.

"It just really showed us, and motivated us, that there are all these people and resources that are willing the help us get there, and all we needed from the girls was to put in their time and effort, which they did," Chin Sang said.

Excitement about flying in a plane, visiting the city and putting their new skills to work on the ice has been building among the girls for weeks. About 1,500 people live in Eabametoong and the biggest building is the school.

The Rez Girls 64 team has two goalies who bravely took turns facing a barrage of shots in their first competitive game. (Jody Porter/CBC)

"I'm excited about going shopping and to McDonald's, going to movies and swimming," Alicia O'Keese wrote as part of a school assignment the day before the team was set to leave.

"I love hockey because we can have fun at the tournament and play a good game," she wrote.

Bad weather in Thunder Bay nearly ended the adventure. No planes were landing in the city on the day the girls were scheduled to arrive.

From plane to bus

But their coaches remained determined to fulfil the promise of a team trip, so they scrambled to find a different plane that would fly west to Sioux Lookout, Ont., and then chartered a bus to make the 400-kilometre journey south to Thunder Bay.

The next day the puck was finally dropped on their first big game.

"Within the first minute I was thinking about all the challenges we've overcome as a team and how proud I am of you," the other co-coach, Leslie Campbell, told her team after a first intermission that never saw them leave their own end zone.

"What I want you to know is we can overcome this. Keep skating hard. Keep playing hard," she said.

Kaydence Wapoose, 10, checks out a pair of hockey gloves donated to the Rez Girls 64 team in December. (Jody Porter/CBC)

And they did. The team had only ever played one other game, against the boys from their own community. They'd never played on artificial ice before.

"It's slippery and people skate fast — a lot faster," said Kyrah Wabano, still smiling in the change room after the game. 

"I had a great time. It feels the same playing here, but harder," said Kaydence Wapoose, "They're fast and really good."

"These boys just push," Wabano added.

But Wapoose, a 10-year-old who is the smallest skater on the team, said she wasn't intimidated by the boys' size or speed.

"I just hit their sticks," she said with a grin.

The confidence and compassion for their teammates demonstrated by the girls is what makes the team winners, regardless of what's on the scoreboard, said Chin Sang, who is also a social counsellor at the school in Eabametoong.

"Their attendance has improved, their schoolwork has improved and their love of each other has skyrocketed," she said. "This has been a journey that these girls needed to have to build themselves up as women."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story stated the team received a $45,000 grant from Scotiabank's Community Hockey Sponsorship Program. In fact, it was from the Arthur and Audrey Cutten Foundation.
    Apr 29, 2017 5:56 PM ET