Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Chico Ralf was emotional.
Ralf has held various executive roles with Ontario’s largest youth hockey tournament for about 35 years now.
And he’s approaching the 20-year mark serving as the vice-president of the Little Native Hockey League tourney, which is often simply called the Little NHL.
The 2023 tournament, which is being held in Mississauga, staged its opening ceremonies on March 12.
A total of 184 squads from across the province are participating in this year’s tourney. The Little NHL was cancelled in each of the past three years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Overwhelming,” Ralf said when asked for his reaction to the fact the tournament has returned this year. “I just can’t believe that we’re back. I was so worried after cancelling for three years because I know if you cancel events, sometimes the event does not come back.”
The opening ceremonies were staged at the Paramount Centre in Mississauga. They included a smudge ceremony, as well as performances from Indigenous dancers and a drum group.
“I was so worried,” Ralf said. “And to be here today at the opening, it’s just overwhelming to me, and to see all the little ones walking around, the players and the Elders and the smiles and happiness on their face, there’s nothing more gratifying to myself. I just feel right in my heart.”
Prior to the pandemic, the Little NHL had attracted well over 200 participating clubs for a number of years.
The tournament was first held in 1971 in the Manitoulin Island town of Little Current. That inaugural event featured 17 clubs.
Organizers did not count the last three years that the tournament was cancelled in its official tally. Thus, this year’s event is being dubbed the 49th annual tourney.
“The numbers are down since the last tournament,” Ralf said. “But anyone that follows hockey knows COVID hit minor hockey associations across the province. All the numbers are down. So, it doesn’t really surprise me that we are down a little bit.”
Ralf believes it won’t be long before the Little NHL surpasses the 200-squad mark again.
“Speaking with many teams, they were telling me that next year for sure they’re going to get together more teams to come down for the 50th (anniversary of the tournament),” said Ralf, who is a member of Wasauksing First Nation, located near Parry Sound. “That’s going to be the big milestone.”
Though this week’s event, which continues until March 16 is being held in Mississauga, Nipissing First Nation in northern Ontario is serving as the tournament host.
A total of 474 matches will be staged at various rinks throughout Mississauga.
Though team members will be aiming to hoist the Little NHL trophy following championship games, Ralf said there is a more important meaning to the entire event.
“The week is about coming together, seeing some of their friends because you make lifelong Little NHL friends,” he said. “Because of COVID, a lot of them from up north I haven’t seen them since. I’ve talked to them on the phone maybe briefly. But now we can actually connect and see each other again. It’s more than just a hockey tournament. It’s unity of our people coming together.”
Following the opening ceremonies on Sunday, a friendly game was held featuring some members of the Indigenous NHL alumni squad.
Also taking part in the contest were several participants from this year’s tourney. A random draw was held to pick the competitors from those who had expressed interest in playing in the game.
Former National Hockey League players that suited up for the Indigenous alumni club were Jason Simon, Ric Nattress, Jamie Leach, Denny Lambert, Cody McCormick and Dan Frawley.
Frawley, a Nipissing First Nation member, was brought in for the week by his First Nation to serve as an ambassador throughout the tournament.
“What I like doing is going in to introduce myself to the older teams and telling them about myself,” said Frawley, who had a 14-season pro playing career and suited up for 274 NHL games, splitting his time between the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Sunday’s game also featured a pair of other former NHL stars, who are Indigenous, Reggie Leach (Jamie’s father) and Stan Jonathan. They served as coaches for the alumni team.
The entire schedule for this week’s Little NHL games can be viewed here https://app.eventconnect.io/events/22003/scheduling-scoring?fbclid=IwAR1RIicT6KhTzEM8013y_TEXirIcwLwOJzgjBXxmQdEEsTmpFg93XaeKOQM
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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.