By Sam Laskaris
COWICHAN VALLEY, B.C.
It’s worked before.
And now members of the organizing committee for the 2017 National Aboriginal Hockey Championships are confident they can make it work again.
Back in 2008, the British Columbia District of Cowichan Valley hosted a successful North American Indigenous Games (NAIG).
Almost a decade later, the core executive that delivered those games will be back to stage the 2017 National Aboriginal Hockey Championships (NAHC).
The tournament, which will feature 16 squads (eight female, eight male), is scheduled for May 1 to 6.
“Since 2008, Cowichan has consistently talked about other opportunities that are available through sport,” said Rick Brant, the executive director of the tournament host Aboriginal Sport, Recreation and Physical Activity Partners Council, also called Partners Council for short.
Brant, who is now also the NAIG Council president, had served as the CEO for the 2008 NAIG.
The majority of those that served on the NAIG organizing executive are back lending their expertise to the 2017 NAHC.
“British Columbia had not hosted the championship since 2004,” Brant said. “We thought it was appropriate to put in a bid to host it again.”
The Partners Council had started a province-wide search back in March of 2015 to identify communities that were interested in hosting next year’s tournament.
Cowichan Valley was not the only one that was keen to stage the national event. Three other communities also submitted bids.
The winning bid was announced in late November.
“Cowichan Valley has a really strong hockey history,” Brant said. “It has a tremendous reputation for hosting national and international events.”
Matches for the tournament contests will be staged at a pair of rinks. The Island Saving Centre in the Cowichan Valley capital of Duncan will be the site of the majority of games, including all the playoff matches.
This facility, home to the Cowichan Valley Capitals, a Junior A franchise that competes in the British Columbia Hockey League, has a seating capacity of about 1,400.
Games will also be held at the Cowichan Lake Sports Arena, which can seat 800 spectators.
Brant is no stranger to the NAHC. As the Partners Council executive director, he’s been responsible for overseeing the B.C. male and female teams competing at the nationals for the past six years.
He’s also one of the individuals responsible for the formation of the tournament, which will celebrate its 16th anniversary next year.
Brant had previously worked as the executive director of the Aboriginal Sports Circle, the governing body for Aboriginal sports in Canada, which established the NAHC.
“It’s been amazing to see this tournament evolve into what it is today,” he said.
In its early years some of the provincial and territorial teams were getting beat by some rather lopsided scores.
Brant and others had envisioned a tournament with competitive squads right across the board. And for the most part, that’s what has transpired.
“We’re seeing the fruits of our labour,” he said. “We’re seeing some amazing development from some of the provinces.”
The British Columbia men’s team was one of those that struggled in the tournament’s early years. But it has been successful recently, capturing a medal in each of the past four years, including gold in 2013 and at the 2016 event staged in Mississauga, Ont.
Brant’s son Ty was a member of that championship squad. He’s eligible to return to the 2017 B.C. squad. About half of the players from last year’s gold medallists are not eligible to come back.
But the elder Brant is anticipating another strong performance from the club.
“We know we have some phenomenal players at (hockey) academies, Major Midget and Junior B levels,” he said.
As for the B.C. female side, it has not been as successful as its male counterparts, failing to capture any hardware in recent years.
“We’re getting better every year,” Brant said. “Last year the girls lost in the bronze-medal game in overtime to Manitoba. And the neat thing about the girls’ program is that all of the girls that played last year are eligible to play for this year’s team.
The tryouts for both of the B.C. squads will be staged April 7 to 9 in Prince George.
Brant said 2017 NAHC officials are keen to make the tournament a benchmark event. To that end, they are planning to include several off-ice events to coincide with the on-ice action. But no details are available to be shared yet.
“That’s the process we’re contemplating right now,” he said.