Whitefish River and AOK band together to co-host Little NHL

LITTLE CURRENT—The wildly popular Little Native Hockey League (Little NHL) has grown by leaps and bounds since its humble beginnings at the Little Current Arena, expanding from a handful of local Island reserve teams bent simply on providing youth with an opportunity to play hockey and have fun, to a highly competitive major tournament, which comprised a record 167 teams last year.

So greatly has the hockey tournament grown that it long ago outstripped the capacity of Manitoulin’s ice pad and accommodations industry to host the event.

Recently, even the larger nearby communities of Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie have proven to be too small handle the number of participants in the event. So although two Manitoulin First Nations, Whitefish River First Nation and Aundeck Omni Kaning (AOK), are the co-hosts of the 44th Annual Little NHL this year, the actual event is taking place in the City of Mississauga.

“There are not many venues in the province that can handle an event of this magnitude,” said Chief Shining Turtle (Franklin Paibomsai).

Both Chief Shining Turtle and AOK Chief Patsy Corbiere said that they did not anticipate this year’s registrations to continue to set records. “I think we are expecting something more like around 127 or so,” said Chief Corbiere. “A number of factors are coming into play there.” The cost of sending teams to the tournament being a prime factor in formulating that estimate. “It costs a huge amount to send a team,” said Chief Corbiere. “We being hosts this year, the (AOK) band is helping to sponsor the teams.” For most bands, a continuing tightening of funding from the federal government (capped at two percent annual increases for decades) limits band councils’ ability to chip in. “I think for a lot of the Northern bands it is a big strain to try and fundraise,” she said.

Regardless of how many teams are sent to the Little NHL this year, participants will find a significant change in how the tournament approaches its interactions with the young players, as the tournament seeks to return to its roots.

“We are getting rid of the Most Valuable Player awards,” said Chief Corbiere.

“When this tournament was started by Reverend Len Self, Earl Abotossaway, former Chief Jim Debassige, Norm Debassige and former Chief Jim McGregor it was all about the kids being able to play hockey and have fun,” explained Chief Shining Turtle. “Our kids are all all-stars and we felt that it was not fair to single out only the best players for recognition.”

Among the changes taking place this year, the organizers are hoping to have teams continue to play games after they have been eliminated from the championship rounds.

“It seemed a huge waste for teams to go all the way down there, be eliminated in the first couple of days and then not have anything to do,” said Chief Corbiere. “It seems like the tournament was starting to drift away from being about the kids.’

“It really was getting away from the spirit of why the Little NHL was originally formed,” agreed Chief Shining Turtle. “This was about Native kids being able to play hockey.”

Over the years that it has expanded, the Little NHL hockey tournament struggled with its own growing pains, including accusations of cherry-picking players so that teams were plumped with ringers brought in solely for the tournament and down through the years, rule changes were implemented to try and prevent those practices. “I remember when I was a kid,” said Chief Shining Turtle. “(Co-founder) Jimmy McGregor would come into the dressing room with a can of pop,” he chuckled. “It was Fanta usually, if I recall correctly, and it was a pretty big deal.” These days the expectations are much higher. “You probably won’t see people camping out on gym floors anymore,” he agreed. But when it comes to maintaining the simple founding principles, the hosts hope to return the event to something close to its roots.

The cost of putting on the tournament itself will likely run to over $120,000 this year, not including the individual expenses of bands, teams and the players’ families and chaperones themselves.

At one time, the Dreamcatcher Fund sponsored the event to the tune of some $400,000, but even that foundation has cut back severely on its contributions.

This year, keeping with the theme of every player being an all-star, the Little NHL hosts are sourcing high-quality caps to be presented to all of the players. “We are going to celebrate all of our players,” said Chief Shining Turtle. “Not just the handful of players who always excel on the ice and who always receive recognition.” Even that modest outlay can run to some serious coin at an estimated $10 a player.

This year the Little NHL organization hired two coordinators to help put the tournament together. “The Little NHL is very pleased to announce that Aundeck Omni Kaning and Whitefish River First Nation has just hired two co-ordinators for the upcoming 2015 tournament,” said Little NHL President Marvin Assinewai. “Jane Francis and Kendra Madahbee can be reached at 705-285-4335, extension 223.”

This year’s Little NHL executive committee includes President Assinewai; vice-president Chico Ralph; George Francis, elder representative; Debbie Corbiere-Debassige; Lloyd McGregor; Rob Restoule; Terry Debassige; Paul Williams; and Gerry McGregor.

The opening ceremonies for this year’s tournament will take place on Sunday, March 15 at 7 pm at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga and the games will begin on Monday, March 16 and run to March 19.

Registration for the event is set at $550, payable to the Whitefish River First Nation, and insurance is provided through a working agreement with Hockey Canada. If a player is not registered with Hockey Canada, an additional $15 will be added to the registration fee.

Part of the original goal set out by the founders of the Little NHL tournament was to encourage unity among the First Nations communities and that goal is reflected in that organization’s vision: citizenship, education, sportsmanship and respect.

The two host communities launched this year’s Little NHL season with an exhibition game featuring their players at Little Current recreation centre, complete with pizza for all.