'Our First Nation is a hockey town': Stanley Cup visits northern Ontario First Nation
People in Sandy Lake First Nation felt like champions on Tuesday when the Stanley Cup made a surprise visit to the remote community, 600 kilometres north of Thunder Bay, Ont.
The coveted trophy arrived in Sandy Lake, along with 16 crates of donated hockey equipment collected by the Rotary Club of Etobicoke, in Toronto. Toronto city councillor Mark Grimes, a board member with the Hockey Hall of Fame, arranged for the Stanley Cup to make the trip north.
"I did some arm-twisting," Grimes told CBC News on Tuesday, just before boarding plane to Sandy Lake. "I wanted it to be a surprise, but it got out."
"People hardly slept, waiting for the Cup," Dennis Kakegamic told CBC News. "We're so excited."
Hockey has always been a big part of life in Sandy Lake, for as long as anyone can remember, according to Chief Bart Meekis.
The First Nation is almost evenly split between Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs fans, with one die-hard Leaf fan taking a ribbing on Tuesday over his team's long drought in Stanley Cup wins.
Councillor Joe Kakegamic was wearing his Maple Leafs jersey, his Maple Leafs ball cap and his Maple Leafs socks as his colleagues teased him that the Leafs were finally getting around to bringing their 1967 Stanley Cup parade to Sandy Lake.
"Toronto needs a First Nations captain to make it happen again," Kakegamic said, recalling George Armstrong hoisting the Cup, back in '67.
"I know the kids have that goal, to play in the NHL, and I hope one day one of the kids brings [the Stanley Cup] back here," said head councillor Wayne Kakepetum.
'We are the champions'
The men's team, the Sandy Lake Riverhawks, will put their championship on the line at the Northern Bands Tournament, the biggest First Nations hockey tournament in northern Ontario, in March.
"Our First Nation is a hockey town. We love hockey, so I'm proud to be from Sandy Lake and we are the champions for another few months," Kakepetum said with a laugh.
Even the few people in Sandy Lake who are not so keen on hockey, caught the excitement.
"It's an honour for the Stanley Cup to be in our reserve where everyone is into hockey, especially my dad," said Yvonne Fiddler-Kakekagumick, who is responsible for the community's recreation program and whose father played on a memorable championship hockey team.
A trucking company, owned by Grimes donated the cost of shipping to get the hockey equipment as far north by road as possible. Wasaya Airways was helping with the transportation costs of flying it the rest of the way to Sandy Lake.
A teacher in Sandy Lake worked with the Rotarians to finalize the plans.
Chief Meekis said teacher Jenn Elwell is "the most famous name in Sandy Lake right now and all the other communities that are nearby are jealous that we have her in Sandy Lake, so I wanted to say thank you to her."