Members of a hockey team from Nunavut tried out some new things in Sarnia last week: walking on grass, swimming in a lake, skating in summer.
The bantam and midget-age players from Canada’s northernmost territory were in town for a series of exhibition games against Sarnia Sting minor hockey teams, a trial run of sorts for Nunavut’s first ever hockey entry at the Canada Winter Games next February.
One of the coaches is Brandon Biggers, a Sarnia native and former Ontario Hockey League player who teaches Grade 8 in Iqaluit, the capital.
He said it was a week of firsts for the many of the boys who had never been so far south.
Standing among towering trees, seeing cows and horse, even driving at highway speeds were awe-inspiring experiences.
“We had one kid who was hesitant to touch the grass with his feet,” Biggers said. “We brought them to Lambton Mall, which is not a big mall, and that was huge.”
The team also visited Canatara beach. Coming from a land of ice-capped mountains and tundra, some of the boys had never been in a lake before.
“We went to a pool first just to make sure they could swim,” said Biggers who grew up near Northern Collegiate and attended Rosedale elementary.
“It started raining and they didn’t care, they were still in the water.”
Some players asked if Lake Huron was an ocean, and were skeptical when told the land on the far side was the United States.
The games at the Progressive Auto Sales Arena were also one of the few times they’d skated in summer, or been on artificial ice. In Iqaluit, 2,500 kilometres north of Sarnia, rinks are made by pouring water as soon as it’s cold enough to freeze.
At the end, the Bantam Sting team threw a goodbye barbeque at Canatara Park.
“Everyone has been asking them questions, talking to them and have been really friendly,” said Biggers, who has lived the past five years in Iqaluit and Pangnirtung.
He planned to teach up north for one year after teacher’s college but found himself drawn to northern culture and Inuit tradition, including traditional knowledge of hunting and fishing on the land.
“There’s a really strong community vibe there,” he said. “Everyone does everything together.”
Biggers played three seasons in the OHL with Guelph, Erie and Sault Ste. Marie. He started coaching to better connect with his students outside the classroom.
“The kids were really good to me,” he said. “I tried to totally immerse myself in Inuit culture and do everything their way. They’ve changed me, really.”