Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Members of the Kam River Fighting Walleye have been doing their best this month to stay atop of the standings in their league.
But some players and staff members of the Thunder Bay-based Junior A hockey squad have also been busy recently running camps for youth living in remote First Nations communities in northern Ontario.
For starters, several youth from Cat Lake First Nation travelled from their home community to Thunder Bay from Feb. 16 to Feb. 19.
Three of the Kam River coaches and a handful of Fighting Walleye players led the youth through various drills and scrimmages.
And the players from Cat Lake First Nation also had the opportunity to attend a Fighting Walleye game.
The Kam River franchise competes in the Superior International Junior Hockey League. The Fighting Walleye are currently sitting atop the standings of their seven-team league sporting an impressive 33-8-0-1 record.
Kam River has 11 regular season matches remaining in its league, which features six franchises from northern Ontario as well as the Wisconsin Lumberjacks.
Kam River assistant coach Kurtis McCallum and two of the team’s players, forward Ryan Doucette and defenceman Simon Bienvenue, returned to Thunder Bay on Feb. 22 following a three-day trip to Sandy Lake First Nation.
It can take around two hours to travel to the fly-in community from Thunder Bay.
“I think it’s a unique way to give back and have our guys share their skills,” McCallum said.
McCallum, Doucette and Bienvenue joined Sandy Lake youth and led them through drills and games for several hours each day.
About 20 kids showed up for the first day of activities. About twice as many kids showed up on the final day.
Doucette said the trip was an eye-opening experience for him.
“It was something coming up here and seeing how little they have,” he said. “A lot of these kids barely have running water. These kids were so grateful for everything we gave them. They were so excited by the fact we gave them a bottle of water.”
Both the Cat Lake and Sandy Lake camps were organized by Mikinakoos Children’s Fund, which received a Canadian Heritage grant to increase sport for social development in First Nations communities. This grant is also helping Mikinakoos ship more than $12,000 in brand-new hockey equipment to Sandy Lake and Cat Lake for donation.
The Mikinakoos Children’s Fund is a charity that was created to address poverty by providing basic amenities, including food, clothing and shelter to First Nations children living in remote First Nations communities.
McCallum said the Sandy Lake First Nation visit was also beneficial to the two Fighting Walleye players who made the trip.
“I think it’s good for them as well,” he said. “Simon is from Wisconsin and he had never been this far north. It was good for him to get that experience.”
Doucette said the Kam River contingent also had some interesting experiences away from the rink. They met the council members of the First Nation, were interviewed on a local radio station and were also taken ice fishing by a couple of members of the community.
Though they are not Indigenous, both Doucette and Bienvenue volunteered to be part of the trip to Sandy Lake First Nation.
For Doucette, one thing stood out.
“Just seeing how excited the kids are to have us here,” he said. “They don’t see a lot of unfamiliar faces around here.”
Gary Mamagesic, who previously organized physical activities for Sandy Lake members, but who now works in the First Nation’s governance department, assisted with operational details during the trip.
“They really inspired the children,” Mamagesic said of the Kam River reps. “It was very great to see them. We wanted to see how fast they are and how good their skills are.”
Mamagesic added the youth from his community showed tremendous progress after just a couple of days of skating with the members of the junior squad.
“We had a lot of new hockey skaters,” he said. “But right now they’re flying on the ice. They’re learning all the techniques of how to skate properly.”
In other words, mission accomplished as far as Mikinakoos Children’s Fund reps are concerned.
“A primary aim of this initiative is to create opportunities for kids to be kids and play,” said the charity’s executive director Emily Shandruk. “When you fund these activities, you are helping offer children a safe and happy environment to build healthy relationships and develop important life skills.”
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.