MISSISSAUGA—For the first time in over 20 years, Whitefish River First Nation (WRFN) and Aundeck Omni Kaning (AOK) First Nation co-hosted the Little Native Hockey League (LNHL) tournament and this pairing is obviously one that works. The 2015 event was the busiest ever in the LNHL’s 44-year history with 178 teams participating.
AOK Chief Patsy Corbiere told The Expositor that the over 70 volunteers from both communities came together to make the tournament run like a well-oiled machine.
This year’s opening ceremony was a far cry from the usual speeches from dignitaries and special guests that usually line the red-carpeted ice.
“This year nobody was allowed to talk, actually,” Chief Corbiere laughed. While the dignitaries were still on the ice, Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Pat Madahbee was the emcee (fitting as Chief Madahbee is one of the LNHL’s originators from its roots in 1971 in Little Current), and who is also known for his love of ‘the game’ and his quick wit.
“I’ve been in the stands, on the floor and we never get it right, until now,” Chief Franklin Shining Turtle Paibomsai said of the opening ceremonies, adding that this year it was “less talk, more walk.”
The crowd of over 2,000 was blown away when the show began. Colours, beats and First Nation hockey heroes literally jumped from the ice in an astounding 3D show like something straight from the NHL itself. Each of the communities represented from around the province also had their turn, popping out of the ice to the beat of the music from A Tribe Called Red and the Red Bull Singers.
“Fantastic, absolutely fantastic,” Chief Shining Turtle said, “from the opening ceremonies to the quality of games, atmosphere to the unity of purpose.”
“A tournament is a tournament, but this is a tournament plus,” he added, explaining that the LNHL instills civic pride in the youths about their communities and the places they are from.
Chief Corbiere explained that this year’s tournament theme was ‘We Are All-Stars’ and the message really shone through. Another new feature was the giving out of special LNHL hats to all the players, helping to make everyone feel extra special and not singling anyone out. Gone are the most valuable player trophies.
Both chiefs had nothing but praise for the City of Mississauga. “They were very good to us,” she said, noting that the city provided the volunteers with free accommodations as well as with some food vouchers. “They know what this tournament generates in terms of business. One hundred and seventy-eight teams, that’s about 3,700 players not including parents and grandparents, filling hotels, restaurants and stores.”
The next installment of LNHL, the 45th anniversary, will again be held in Mississauga, but after that, the tournament is again up for grabs so it is a possibility that the big event will return to the North.
The tournament is about more than just hockey. It also gives youngsters from far away communities a chance to discover big city life. Hallways were buzzing with conversations about trips to the CN Tower or hitting up the mall, the chief said, which is equally important.
A tournament of this size takes some serious organizing with both communities employing two individuals, one from each community, in Kendra Madahbee and Jane Francis.
Ms. Madahbee said she noticed an “extreme difference” between this year’s tournament and a past one she helped with when the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation was the host and it was held in Sudbury.
“Our community (AOK) took care of two rinks and WRFN took care of two rinks,” she explained, noting that the Mississauga tournament utilized the Hershey Centre, which has four ice surfaces under one roof.
Ms. Madahbee had a hand in helping to organize the opening ceremony, which was created by Egg Studios of Halifax. “Speaking with the gentlemen at Egg Studios, they were surprised at how many teams were at the tournament and were happy to come on board.”
“We really had the Hershey Centre rocking that night,” she said, noting that the feedback has been nothing but positive.
“The volunteers went above and beyond what was expected of them,” Ms. Madahbee added.
“The future of the tournament looks robust,” Chief Shining Turtle said. “It’s going to grow. It’s a new place for us and I don’t think we should shy away from that.”
The talent showcased on the ice surface was something to crow about too, the chief added.
“It was an honour, an absolute honour to do this for the people,” Chief Shining Turtle said. “Seeing the smiles on their faces, nothing you can do can replace that. For any community who’s thinking about being a host, there’s every reason to do it.”
The close of the tournament was clouded with sadness, however, when 13-year-old Ember Wynne of the Red Lake First Nation in Northeastern Ontario near Nipigon, who played defense with the Atikameksheng Eagles at the LNHL, was killed tragically along with her baby sister and grandfather last Thursday evening at the Magnetewan First Nation on their way home from the tournament. The van they were travelling in pulled out onto Highway 69 when it was struck by a transport truck.
A memorial service was held for the girl and her family in Magnetewan on the weekend, which was attended by Chief Corbiere, Grand Council Chief Madahbee and Deputy Grand Chief Glen Hare. The girls from the Atikameksheng Eagles also attended the service.
An appropriate trophy will be dedicated in the young athlete’s memory for the 2016 Little NHL event.
“This is a terrible tragedy,” said Grand Council Chief Madahbee. “The kids play their best, have fun, make friends and then something like this happens.”