By Sam Laskaris
“Native kids just want to play hockey, and there’s the passion Native people have for hockey.”
Record 250 teams expected for Alberta Hockey Tourney
By Sam Laskaris
Organizers of the Alberta Native Hockey Provincial Championships are gearing up for their biggest tournament ever.
This year’s event, which will be staged at various Edmonton rinks, is scheduled for April 6 to April 9.
This marks the 24th year for the tournament since a format change was introduced in 1994.
Native provincial championships were also held in Alberta prior to this. But those events, which were held annually at various venues throughout the province, featured just one age grouping at each location.
Since ’94, the provincials became centralized and all divisions started being contested in one city. For many families this alleviated the concerns of juggling their schedules or trying to figure out how to get their youngsters to different cities on the same day.
“With parents having kids in different divisions, that made things pretty difficult,” said Clyde Goodswimmer, the director of operations for Alberta Native Hockey, the group which oversees the provincials. “It’s a lot smoother now.”
Since the tournament became centralized, for the most part, it has been staged during the Easter weekend. But this year’s event will be held a week before the Easter long weekend.
Organizers are expecting a record of about 250 teams to participate in this year’s tournament.
“It’s climbing,” Goodswimmer said of the participation numbers. “We had 240 teams last year. That was the most we’ve ever had.” And the year before that, 222 squads had competed in the tourney.
This year’s youth event will feature seven age groupings, ranging from the Initiation category, which includes players age five and six, all the way up to the Junior category, for those 21 and under. Atom, Novice, Peewee, Bantam and Midget divisions will also be contested.
Goodswimmer believes there are fairly simple reasons why the tourney continues to grow.
“Native kids just want to play hockey,” he said. “And there’s the passion Native people have for hockey.”
For many of the participants, this is the one event they most look forward to every year. It’s their Stanley Cup, Goodswimmer added.
“Every year the day after this tournament finishes kids are out there fundraising so they can come to the tournament the next year,” he said.
Plus it’s not just the participants that anxiously look forward to this tourney each year. Parents and other family members of the competitors view this event as a must on their annual sporting calendars.
Clubs do not need to qualify in order to take part in the Native provincials. All they need to do is pay their registration fees and they will be entered into the event.
Besides provincial bragging rights, the atmosphere at the tournament often brings back participants and their family members year after year.
“I think a lot of it has to do with bringing all the groups together,” Goodswimmer said. “People like seeing their old friends and making new ones.”
And who knows? Those who play in the event, or simply attend, could be witnessing some future National Hockey League stars in action.
That’s because a handful of those who took part in previous tournaments eventually ended up making it to the NHL.
The list of tournament alumni who are still participating in the world’s premier hockey circuit includes Jordin Tootoo, Rene Bourque and Vernon Fiddler. Tootoo is not only the first Inuit to play in the NHL but also the first person who grew up in Nunavut to compete in the league.
The 34-year-old forward is currently a member of the Chicago Blackhawks. During his NHL career, which began in 2003, Tootoo has also had stints with the Nashville Predators, Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils.
Bourque, a 35-year-old forward, is toiling with the Colorado Avalanche, his sixth NHL franchise. Since breaking into the league in 2005, Bourque has also had stops in Chicago, Calgary, Montreal, Anaheim and Columbus.
Fiddler, a 36-year-old forward, was traded to Nashville from the New Jersey Devils this past weekend. He’s rather familiar with Nashville, however, having previously played with the Predators’ organization from 2002-09.
Fiddler has also had NHL stints with the Dallas Stars and the then Phoenix (now Arizona) Coyotes.
To help promote its annual provincial tournament, Alberta Native Hockey has also launched a website. It can be found at www.albertanativehockey.com.
The plan is to have the site include the history of the provincial tournament, as well as profiles of board members as well as selected players and teams.
Organizers are also planning to establish an online portal to honour those volunteers who were responsible for the launching of this annual tournament.