The co-coach of a First Nations club made up primarily of players from Sarnia’s Aamjiwnaang community says the recent Little Native Hockey League (NHL) Tournament at the Hershey Centre in Mississauga was the thrill of a lifetime for the team.
Without a single practice and just two exhibition games under its belt, the team went on to win five consecutive games at the 44th annual event to capture the Atom division for players aged nine and ten.
Aamjiwnaang defeated Walpole Island in the semi-finals and then M’Chigneeg from Manitoulin Island in the title tilt.
But Chris Chartrand says the experience went far beyond on-ice fun. It included a dazzling, Olympic Games-style 3D digital light display at the opening ceremonies, camaraderie among players, parents and organizers from First Nations across Canada, and sightseeing to locations in the GTA most had only ever seen on TV or the Internet.
“It has actually evolved to be the largest (minor hockey) tournament in Canada,” Chartrand said. “This year, there were 178 teams registered and 3,700 players.”
The inaugural tournament in 1971 featured just 17 teams and 200 players.
Chartrand says some players from previous Little NHL events have gone on to excel at hockey including some who made the National Hockey League.
Troy Lajeunese of the Sting previously played in the tournament. He is from the Dokis First Nation between North Bay and Sudbury.
A pre-tournament challenge issued by the coaching staff was for the players to have fun and make new friends. But Chartrand says the tournament victory came with a unique sidebar.
Co-coach Don Mackenzie suggested during Aamjiwnaang’s second game that the team attempt to have every one of its 11 skaters score at least one goal in the tournament. And, the team, which ranged in skill level from one “AAA” player to another who had never played organized hockey before, made it happen in dramatic fashion. Two players, Matthew Chartrand and Zak Cottrelle, who had not scored previously in the tournament, both lit the lamp in the championship game.
“These kids rallied together as a team in unselfish play to ensure that everyone on the team had a taste of glory,” said coach Chartrand. “We had a bunch of kids who played their hearts out.”
But joy turned to sadness when several relatives of one Aamjiwnaang player were killed the night of the championship game.
Cameron Tuck’s grandfather and two cousins, including one who had played in the tournament, died when their vehicle was involved in a head-on collision with a logging truck on their way home to the Red Rock First Nation community in northern Ontario.
“Words can’t express the loss that our team felt at the loss,” Chartrand said.
The team hopes to return next year to defend its title.