By Sam Laskaris
MEMBERTOU FIRST NATION, N.S.
Officials from the Membertou First Nation are busily preparing to welcome clubs to the 2018 National Aboriginal Hockey Championships (NAHC).
The tournament, featuring Bantam (14-15) and Midget (16-17) players will run May 6 to May 12.
The Membertou First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community, is located about three kilometres from Sydney, N.S.
All matches in the 20-team (10 female, 10 male) tournament will be staged at the Membertou Sport & Wellness Centre.
The facility has two ice pads. The main rink has a seating capacity of 1,350. And there are 350 seats in the second rink.
“We’re ready to host them,” tournament co-chair Gerard McPhee said of the participating squads. “And we’re ready to raise the bar.”
The NAHC has been held annually since 2001.
Membertou First Nation Chief Terrance Paul is the tournament’s other co-chair.
McPhee said the bulk of the work for the tournament is done.
“Right now we’re just trying to launch a media campaign to tell everybody about the tournament,” he said.
McPhee added organizers are also adding some more volunteers on a daily basis. He’s hoping to have 100- 125- volunteers in place before the event commences.
“Right now we’re almost there,” he said. “We have about 80. But we can use a few more. The more the merrier.”
The majority of the volunteers so far are from the Membertou First Nation.
“Most of them are right now,” McPhee said. “That’s why we haven’t really pushed it yet.”
In recent years the NAHC had been featuring 16 clubs, eight in the female grouping and eight in the male category.
But a record 20 clubs will be participating this year. The increase in the number of participants is because New Brunswick will now be icing its own teams and, the fact, Ontario will now send four entrants instead of two.
New Brunswick players previously competed on the Team Atlantic squads. But now the Atlantic clubs will just include players from Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland.
McPhee is uncertain how the host Atlantic squads will fare this year.
“That’s a good question,” he said. “Historically they’ve had their struggles. They’re up against some pretty big teams.”
But McPhee said he believes the host teams just might benefit from home-ice advantage.
“I hope so,” he said. “I think they will. They will have a bunch of fans cheering them on.”
As for Ontario, it will now have Ontario South and Ontario North contingents in both the female and male divisions.
Also taking part this year will be teams representing British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Quebec-based Eastern Door and the North, and Team North, featuring players from Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.
McPhee is hoping to have some large crowds at the NAHC games.
“We’re hoping to (have sellouts),” he said. “Historically we’ve seen tapes and there are some empty seats. We’re trying to fill the place up.”
Organizers are certainly doing their best to do that, considering they are charging just $5 for a day pass. For that price fans can stay for all of the matches scheduled that day if they choose.
“We’re certainly making it affordable for people to come,” McPhee said. “We want to have some fans there. We want to maybe get some schools to come out and watch a game during the day.”
McPhee is also hoping those who are not working during the day, as well as seniors, will be keen to come out and watch some of the contests during the day.
McPhee is confident out-of-towners will be impressed with the Membertou facility, a $19 million centre which opened in September of 2016.
The Kameron Junior Miners, a Junior B squad, are the facility’s main tenant. The Junior Miners compete in the Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League.
The Cape Breton Tradesmen and the Glace Bay Panthers also call the arena home. The Tradesmen are a boys’ Major Midget AA squad while the Panthers are a female Midget AA club.
All of the clubs at the NAHC will play four round-robin matches.
Following round-robin action the top four finishers in each division will advance to semi-final action.
All of the other entrants will also play one additional relegation match to determine placings fifth through 10th.
“That will determine the rankings for next year,” McPhee said.
McPhee was brought in to co-chair this year’s national tournament. He previously co-chaired the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, held in 2014 at various Cape Breton Island locations.
Plus he is the co-chair of a street hockey tournament, which is celebrating its fifth year in 2018.