Looking Back on 40 Years of Team Spirit

In the fall of 1975 when Joe Jack was around 24 years old he and a group of friends thought it would be a good idea to start a First Nations hockey team that would include people from all the communities in the Yukon.

He and his friends were avid hockey players. “We called ourselves The Weekend Warriors because we became warriors on the weekends,” says Jack.

Jack and the others wanted to start something positive that would help people come together during the long winter season.

“The idea was to get people in the communities outdoors so that they could stay happy and in a good space during the winter. Bringing people together in a spirit of fun and camaraderie was the real goal,” says Jack. “The whole intention of why I started was to use hockey as a way to address these issues in Yukon communities.”

The first thing that Jack needed was money for a bus so that he could travel around the Yukon shuttling players to and from the games. In 1975 Phil Fontaine had an office on the fourth floor of what’s now the Elijah Smith Building where he worked as a Regional Director General with the Federal Government.

“Phil agreed to put up 5,000 dollars for a bus on one condition: that he get to be on the team,” says Jack. Little did Jack know that almost half a century later this inspired idea would have grown into what it is today.

Their first road trip in 1975 was to Dawson City. They played in the old arena. Jack speaks fondly of the event that he helped make happen. He has especially fond memories of the first tournament that they played in the spring of 1977 in Whitehorse.

“Elijah Smith was coaching, but he quit during the first period,” says Jack with a laugh.

Elijah Smith, Mike Smith, Dave Joe and Harry Allen among others played in the first tournaments. The first six teams were Burwash Landing, Carmacks, Dawson City, Fort Nelson, Ross River and Whitehorse.

Jack remembers playing the miners in Elsa in 1976. “They were yelling and cussing at us and we cussed right back,” he laughs.

The first games were rough by today’s standards. During one of the games Jack remembers, “four or five players had to be sent to the hospital but we just kept on playing.” One of the players was wearing work gloves as hockey gloves, “people took what they had and made it work. It was a lot of fun.”

Randy Merkel has been a player with the Nannock Warriors for a while now.

“The year it went big was the year the Takhini Arena opened (1984). Organizers ran with it and made it a really big event,” he says.

Getting involved was a natural step for Merkel, because he’s a big fan of the game, “I just loved hockey. Also, the social aspect. I really loved that. Elders would come and they were like kids in a candy store, seeing all the people who they haven’t seen in a long time,” he says.

Merkel also enjoys the competitive side of the sport and says that team spirit – their passion for the game – makes the Kilrich Building Centre’s Native Hockey Tournament stand out. “First Nations people have always really supported hockey. It’s become the biggest event for the communities, we always fought and competed hard.”

Merkel points out that the tournament has become a cornerstone event in the Yukon. “Everyone looks forward to it. People enjoy it both young and old. It does a tremendous service to the community of Whitehorse as well and gives a much-needed boost to the economy and local businesses at a time of the year when they need it.”

This year the original Nannock Warriors are transitioning to the Old Timer’s League. The 40-year milestone includes a reunion of past players, organizers and presidents. Merkel is looking forward to seeing everyone. “I’m excited to see all the boys get back together in the locker room,” he says. “As coach for many years, I can say that we really gave everyone a run for their money.”

The event has grown over the years. Merkel says it still retains much of the spirit that he loves, “It’s just a lot of fun. The (First Nation) bands and the fans are fantastic! I tip my hat to the organizers who have kept it going all this time.”

It’s going to be a high-energy, action-packed tournament this year, as the event’s popularity continues to grow. “Registration for this year filled up in the first few days” says Michelle Dawson-Beattie, current president of the Yukon Indian Hockey Association. “My mom used to volunteer at the tournament when I was very young so I was always brought along to help or watch my older brother and other family members play.”

She’s seen firsthand the positive impact that sports can have on people, “I’ve always loved the game of hockey and have played my fair share of sports but now days I realize how sport and recreation can assist someone’s life by teaching them valuable lessons such as teamwork, leadership skills, goal setting, conflict resolution and most of all it encourages a healthy active lifestyle.” Today the Kilrich Building Centre’s Yukon Native Hockey Tournament brings in people from all over the Yukon and northern Canada, “It’s amazing to see where all the players travel from just to take part in our tournament.” She says that along with the anniversary the theme this year is passing the torch as the Nannock Warriors move into the Old Timers slot.

New blood isn’t hard to come by, “I love seeing the pride in the younger players faces when they get to play in front of their peers, family and the larger Yukon community. For some of them this is the biggest stage they will play on.” There’s so much interest that Dawson-Beattie and the event organizers are considering adding another two days to the tournament in order to open it up to more teams and bring in more communities, “maybe eventually having a women’s division so that we can showcase what amazing talent our young First Nation ladies have to offer.”

The importance of community comes up with every generation of players. “This is the biggest event of its kind north of 60,” says Dawson-Beattie. “Each player brings three to five people with them when they come to Whitehorse for the tournament.”

The tournament includes four adult divisions and two youth divisions. The Youth division ranges from 10 to 13 years old; Jamboree are from 14 to 17 years old. Followed by A, B and C divisions for adults 18 and up. The Old Timers division is 40 and up. “My favourite part is watching the A division games, we have some really high caliber hockey players here in the Yukon and to see them battling it out for a year’s worth of bragging rights is a great sight to see,” says Dawson Beattie. The tournament runs March 17th, 18th and 19th at the Takhini Arena. “Bring drums, or any sort of noise makers! Along with your favorite team and First Nation swag.” For more information visit the Yukon Indian Hockey Association website at www.yiha.ca.

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