By Morgan O’Neal
The annual national Aboriginal hockey championships were held at the end of April and beginning of May at the Jemini Arenas in Saskatoon, and the hosts were victorious in both men’s and women’s divisions. Team Saskatchewan was just too tough on its home ice. The final game in the men’s division went into overtime before Team Saskatchewan won their fourth-straight national title in a 4-3 thriller versus East Door & North, a team of players from northern Ontario and Quebec. Meanwhile, the women’s provincial team dominated in a 7-3 win, earning their first championship. “It’s quite an accomplishment,” according to Courage Bear, general manager for both Saskatchewan squads. “[The women’s final] was less dramatic, but they sure had to work hard for it.”
The event featured Aboriginal teams from across Canada representing British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, and Ontario, as well as East Door & North. The men’s final showcased the extremely high caliber of hockey at this level of play, exemplified by Damien Kulynych’s game winning goal seven minutes into the extra period. “We had to come from behind twice,” said Bear. “We battled back to take the lead in the third period, then they tied it up with 25 seconds left.” The Saskatchewan men’s squad was expected to be hard to beat, and lived up to their supporters’ expectations. The women’s team, on the other hand, was a blank slate. Nothing could be taken for granted. Their victory was a real achievement for the team. “They had a younger team this year and some of the older players really stepped up,” said Bear.
For the young Native athletes, winning an Aboriginal tournament and taking home a national gold medal is a great honour. According to Bear, “They’re representing not only our province, but their individual communities back home where they come from. The level of hockey is tremendous, and for them to go home and say they’re a national champ is a big deal for these kids. That doesn’t happen every day.” First Nations are underrepresented when it comes to both individual and team sports, and the success of these athletes is a huge inspiration to people across the country. “The male game is doing fine and the girl’’ game is getting better,” says Bear, “…hopefully this can inspire the young girls in our communities.” Bear made a point of praising the behaviour of the participants both on and off the ice. “In the restaurants, in the hotels, they carried themselves very well,” he said. “They’re role models and ambassadors and everything we want them to be.”
In a related story, the Ochapowace First Nation recently lost the building that housed its ice rink and community centre due to fire. This type of infrastructure makes it possible to encourage and develop youth hockey programs on reserves. The Fred Bear Communiplex was built in 1985, and fire departments from Whitewood, Broadview, and the Kahkewistahaw First Nation attended to fight the blaze. No one was injured; however, the communiplex was a complete loss. The communiplex “served as a focal point for not only the citizens of the Ochapowace First Nation but surrounding First Nations as well,” according to a Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations press release. “It’s a devastating loss for all these communities,” said Chief Guy Lonechild, “especially for their talented, aspiring young hockey players, who will no longer have ready access to a major sporting facility close to home.” The Ochapowace Minor Hockey Program welcomed the participation of players from the surrounding First Nations of Kahkewistahaw, Cowessess, Sakimay, and White Bear. “The rink was also used for hockey development schools for the young people, hockey tournaments, as well as referee and coaching clinics for the area First Nations,” FSIN Vice Chief Morley Watson said. “Our hearts go out to the people of the Ochapowace First Nation. Hockey is quite popular in the community and surrounding areas. The loss of the rink will be felt by all.”