Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Jeff Spencer is counting down the days.
Spencer is the chair of the hockey committee for the Aboriginal Sport Circle (ASC), the national governing body for Indigenous athletics. The ASC annually organizes the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships (NAHC), which attracts elite Indigenous players, both female and male, representing their provinces, territories and regions.
This year’s event begins this Sunday, May 7, and continues until May 13 in Winnipeg. All matches will be staged at the Seven Oaks Sportsplex.
This marks the 20th time the national tournament, featuring many of the country’s top Indigenous teenage players, has been held.
The first tournament was in 2002 at Akwesasne, Ont. The tourney should have actually celebrated its 20th anniversary a couple of years ago.
But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was not held in 2020 or in 2021.
Following a two-year hiatus, the 2022 NAHC took place in Membertou, N.S.
“I’m pretty excited,” said Spencer, who has been the ASC’s hockey committee chair since the inception of the tournament. “After all these years I’m excited to get to this year’s milestone event.”
Winnipeg has staged the NAHC once before in 2009.
Tournament co-chair Mel Whitesell is thrilled the event is returning to the province’s capital.
“We’ve been waiting for many years to have the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships back in Manitoba,” said Whitesell, who is also the executive director of the Manitoba Aboriginal Sport and Recreation Council. “We are so happy to have been awarded the 20th anniversary championships.”
A total of 15 squads will participate at this year’s event.
The seven-team female division will feature entrants from Manitoba, Ontario, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Eastern Door and the North (represented by First Nations and Inuit from Quebec) and Team Atlantic, made up of players from the country’s most eastern provinces.
There will be eight teams competing in the male division. The same seven clubs that have female clubs are also in the boys’ division. And Nunavut is also icing a male squad.
Teams for the Winnipeg tourney are ranked based on their performances at the 2022 NAHC.
Manitoba is the top seed for the female division while Ontario is the top-ranked entrant in the male category.
The event features players ages 14 to 17.
The tournament moves around to different locations across Canada each year. Cities submit applications if they are interested in hosting and ASC officials select the annual site.
Current National Hockey League players that competed in the NAHC during their youth careers include Ethan Bear (Vancouver Canucks), Zach Whitecloud (Vegas Golden Knights) and Brandon Montour (Florida Panthers).
Former NHLer Micheal Ferland also participated in the event during his teen years. Ferland is still involved with the tournament now. He will serve as head coach for the Manitoba male squad.
Ferland was an assistant coach with the Manitoba side at last year’s tournament.
Some female NAHC players who went on to crack the roster of the Canada’s top women’s team also took part in previous tournaments. This list includes Jocelyne Larocque, Brigette Lacquette and Jamie Lee Rattray.
The number of participating clubs in the NAHC has varied.
“We had 20 teams some years,” Spencer said. “But we’ve also had 12 and 13.”
Spencer is not focusing on the number of competing clubs this year. Instead, he said it should be noted how the NAHC no longer has just a couple of teams that are favoured to win their categories.
“It’s gone from having maybe two teams competing for the championship to everybody being able to compete for a medal now,” he said. “For me, our event has become a really high-level hockey event.”
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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.