Indigenous minor hockey tournament draws hundreds of players and fans to compete, make connections
When the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre’s annual Indigenous minor hockey tournament rolls into Winnipeg, Pimicikamak becomes a “ghost town,” says one resident.
The community, also known as Cross Lake First Nation and about 530 kilometres north of Winnipeg, virtually clears out every year for the tournament, says Corvo Castl, a defenceman with the Cross Lake Islanders.
Castl, 16, says one of his strongest childhood memories was making it to the tournament finals when he was six or seven.
“We ended up losing. I remember crying,” he said with a chuckle. “That was probably my favourite memory … ’cause we went, like, all the way.”
Castl played two games this weekend at the 33rd annual tournament, which ran at the Hockey For All Centre in west Winnipeg. While his team lost both games, it didn’t matter, he said, because he got time to visit with friends.
Cross Lake First Nation sent 15 teams to the tournament, which hosts players ranging in age from four or five to 18.
During the winter, Castl is constantly at the Cross Lake Sports Complex arena, where he says it’s quiet and calming once he’s on the ice.
“That’s like my second home … everyone knows me there,” said Castl. “They’re like my family.”
Hockey culture is huge in Cross Lake, said Angela Ross. She had two grandsons and many nieces and nephews playing with Cross Lake Islanders teams at the tournament.
“They say back home right now, it’s like a ghost town. I think everybody almost came here with their kids,” Ross said with a grin. “We all like watching hockey.”
Win or lose, the youth are happy to be in Winnipeg playing and having fun, Ross said.
Hockey is a part of life in her community, she said, and many young people have been inspired by Vancouver Canuck Brady Keeper, who hails from Pimicikamak. The Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre tournament had a big celebration for Keeper when he was drafted into the NHL.
As well, Brigette Lacquette, the first First Nation hockey player named to Canada’s national women’s team, played on the Hockey For All Centre ice in 2018, said Anna Parenteau, operations manager for the Manitoba Indigenous Cultural Education Centre, a not-for-profit organization that works to promote awareness and understanding of Indigenous culture.
The tournament, which started Friday and wraps up on Sunday this year, gives young players many other to look up to as well, she said.
“This is the biggest Indigenous minor hockey tournament in Manitoba,” Parenteau said, with “some of the best Indigenous players in Manitoba.”
The competition sees nearly 60 teams from across Manitoba and out-of-province attend. Organizers estimate about 5,000 people a day visit the tournament, including 1,000 players, coaches, managers, fans and their families.
Parenteau says before the COVID-19 pandemic, the tournament had been growing every year. Team numbers are down for 2023, she said, but organizers are hoping they’ll bounce back.
“The kids really love our tournaments and they look forward to it every year,” Parenteau said. “It also helps grow the sport of hockey in Indigenous communities.”
All about the experience
This weekend’s event was the first major tournament since the start of COVID-19 for many players, Ross said.
“They don’t really mind if they lose,” Ross said. “Some teams don’t really go far, but this is a good experience for all the kids to see and observe other players and other teams.”
Castl loves the Winnipeg tournament not just because of the hockey, but because when he’s not playing, he and his friends can explore the city — including going to a movie theatre, something not easily done in Pimicikamak.
The tournament is also important for youth, Castl said, because of the connections.
“I met a lot of new people this tournament,” Castl said. “A lot of friends.”
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