Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
A northern Ontario Junior A hockey club is taking the lead and doing its best for reconciliation.
The Dryden Ice Dogs, members of the Superior International Junior Hockey League (SIJHL), will stage a Truth and Reconciliation game on Sept. 25.
The Thunder Bay North Stars will go up against the Ice Dogs for the match, which will be held at the Dryden Memorial Arena.
A pair of former Indigenous players who made it to the National Hockey League, the father-son combo of Reggie and Jamie Leach, will be special guests at the Dryden game and participate in the ceremonial opening puck drop.
Both will also visit nearby Eagle Lake First Nation the day of the game.
“Reggie’s biological mother is from Eagle Lake First Nation,” said Natasha Lovenuk, who serves as the secretary on the Ice Dogs’ executive and is also the team’s communications lead. “And he has cousins who still live there.”
Dryden’s assistant coach Andrew Perreault, who is the economic development officer for Eagle Lake First Nation, is organizing visit details.
“He’s working with Eagle Lake on what they’re going to do with Reggie and Jamie in the community,” Lovenuk said.
Later that day the former pros will head to a community event, which will be staged at the Dryden Regional Training and Cultural Centre.
“There will be no admission fee for this public event but donations will be accepted,” Lovenuk said.
Proceeds will go to the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, an organization based in North Vancouver.
The Ice Dogs’ brass has also been contacting as many of its former Indigenous players as possible. They will be recognized in an on-ice, pre-game ceremony.
The Dryden club, founded in 2001, has had numerous players from nearby Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation and Eagle Lake First Nation on its roster over the years.
The club’s lineup has also included various Métis, Inuit and players from other First Nations.
SIJHL commissioner Darrin Nicholas and Trevor Iserhoff, a member of Moose Cree First Nation who was recently appointed as the league’s director of inclusion and diversity, will also be in attendance.
The SIJHL is one of nine Junior A circuits across the country under the umbrella Canadian Junior Hockey League (CJHL).
CJHL president Brent Ladds said officials from all of the junior circuits are on board with having their member clubs stage a Truth and Reconciliation game in their communities.
Ideally, teams would host a game as close as possible to Sept. 30, the recently announced federal statutory holiday National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
But Ladds said because of the ongoing pandemic, most CJHL franchises have simply been focusing on having all the necessary safety protocols in place in order to return to action during the 2021-22 season. Special event nights have not yet been a priority for many clubs.
“It was endorsed by our members, but indications were, that with short notice and COVID restrictions in some areas, they weren’t sure that all of their teams could commit at this point,” Ladds said. “But they were going to encourage their members to do so.”
Ladds praised the Dryden franchise for being the first one to announce its match.
“I think it’s very commendable,” Ladds said. “I hope by their example, others will follow.”
Ladds said he believes some Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League clubs are considering hosting a similar contest this season.
“As this would be our first attempt, we are hoping to get a good response and grow it for the upcoming years,” Ladds said of the Dryden game.
Lovenuk is not surprised to see Dryden is the first CJHL squad to announce a Truth and Reconciliation game.
“We’re really about supporting our community and raising awareness in our community,” she said. “We really feel we have a leadership role in almost setting the tone.”
Ice Dogs’ president Mike Sveinson said plans for the game were already underway. But the idea of inviting the pair of former NHLers arose when he travelled to Winnipeg recently with his 12-year-old son Dylan so the youngster could attend Jamie Leach’s Shoot To Score hockey camp.
“All the staff were wearing things with the ‘Every Child Matters’ logo,” Sveinson said, adding he later struck up a conversation with Jamie Leach which led to the Dryden invite.
Sveinson added he felt it was extremely important for the Ice Dogs to stage the upcoming game.
“There’s not a more poignant issue,” he said. “And we have close ties with the nearby First Nations.”
Dryden’s regular season schedule kicks off this Friday, Sept. 17, with a home game against the Fort Frances Lakers.
The Ice Dogs’ roster this season is expected to feature at least six Indigenous players.
Besides Perreault, who is from Couchiching First Nation, Dryden also has another Indigenous coach this season. Curtis Baker, the Ice Dogs’ goalie coach, is from Eagle Lake First Nation.
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.