signs of spring begin early in the Yukon, long before the weather offers any indication that the harsh winter will bow out. It begins with the Sourdough Rendezvous celebrations, and the relief that comes from seeing daylight for more than five hours a day.
Then there is the Yukon Native Hockey Tournament.
Taking place the third weekend of March every year since 1973, the Yukon Native Hockey Tournament (YNHT) attracts up to 42 teams annually.
The tournament began when a group of women imagined a sporting event that would bring the community together and provide the opportunity for Yukon’s First Nation athletes to compete with other Canadian territories and provinces in the sport.
Sandi Gleason and Karee Vallevand are long-time board members with the Yukon Indian Hockey Association, which organizes the YNHT.
“Why hockey? It’s because you can include everybody,” Gleason says. “It started with just the adult teams, and then the kids wanted to play, so we started the Youth Division.”
Gleason’s own son, who wanted to play in the tournament but was too young, had pushed for a youth division. Gleason counts this as one of her favourite memories of the tournament.
The Youth Division quickly gained popularity.
“We had to put a cap on the Youth Division jamboree, otherwise we would be running the tournament for a week,” Vallevand laughs.
The YNHT has remained popular over the years as an event that brings the community together after a long winter. Community support ensures the continued success of the tournament through corporate sponsorships.
It’s easy to see why businesses want to take part. Over three days, hockey players and their families from communities in the Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia and Alberta come into Whitehorse.
Hotel rooms on that weekend are hard to come by, and local businesses see an influx of customers.
Gleason and Vallevand agree that the tournament fosters a fun rivalry, but more important, it fosters confidence. Many players who started in the Youth Division are still playing years later.
“You’ll see parents, grandparents and kids involved in the tournament,” explains Vallevand, who has watched the tournament become a family event during her four years as president of the Indian Hockey Association .
“It’s especially wonderful to watch a team try to advance year after year, and then seeing them win!” she says with pride. “Just seeing that commitment, and then the payoff.”
That community sprit shone through this year in a particular way in response to a fire that claimed the Ross River Recreation Centre in early March. Equipment for Ross River youth who were preparing to participate in “the largest hockey tournament North of 60” perished in the fire.
Deborah Bastien, past president of the Yukon Métis Association, was meeting with other members of that board to create their own team when they heard the community was looking for ways to help the Ross River hockey players.
“We issued a challenge to the Yukon communities to help raise the $20,000 to help replace the equipment,” Bastien says.
Confident that the Yukon spirit would bring in donations, she was still pleasantly surprised at what followed.
“I was contacted by Glenn Babala from Sports North who told me that Yukon Zinc and Selwyn Resources, who both do business in Ross River, had called him with donations of $10,000 each!”
All was looking good for the Ross River kids.
But the phone calls didn’t stop. The Elks Club and Lions Club called with $5,000 each to contribute. Outlander Mining wanted to help. How did $20,000 sound?
CYFN Grand Chief Ruth Massie issued a challenge for all First Nations to contribute. Donations from individuals totaled $1,470.00.
The donations will not only ensure that Ross River hockey players can join the tournament, but will also help replace weight room equipment that was lost in the fire, losses that totaled up to $100,000.
It was a wonderful display of community solidarity among Yukoners.
Then, at the end of the Saturday night Vancouver Canucks game on Hockey Night in Canada, a story aired showing pictures of the fire, explaining the kids may have to forgo the Yukon Native Hockey Tournament this year.
Shortly after that, the NHL Goals and Dreams Program called. The Hudson’s Bay Company is sending hockey equipment out of Manitoba. It seems that love of community could not be contained north of the 60th parallel.
During the interview with Gleason and Vallevand, a fan overhears and interrupts in a panic.
“I’m sorry, is the hockey tournament this weekend? I’m going to be out of town.”
Vallevand assures him that no, it is the next weekend. “Oh, thank God. I thought I was going to miss it!”
That sentiment sums it up for most Yukoners, who wait through a long, cold winter for one of the North’s most anticipated events, and a sure sign of spring.
The Yukon Native Hockey Tournament takes place March 25 to 27 at the Takhini Arena and Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse.