A friend of Jeanie Dendys’s 15-year-old son told Dendys he gets more excited for the native hockey tournament than he does for the Canada Games. Dendys figures it’s because of the exposure and the level of competition — and the community.
A nation-wide community forms during the Yukon Native Hockey Tournament; teams come from all over the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and northern B.C., and individuals come from all over Canada to play in it. People hug when they see each other. Forty-two teams compete.
Tournament coordinator Karee Vallevand has been to other native hockey tournaments but she’s never felt the same spirit. And, of course, the 38-year old tournament is bigger than the hockey.
Vallevand laughs when she says, “People ask us how we do it. “It’s more than booking the ice.” It starts in January. For three months it’s constant, and “it’s always in the back of your mind.” This year has gone smoothly; they’re ready. Dendys and Vallevand glance at each other, as if worried they shouldn’t say it out loud. But then Dendys says, “The spirit of Sandi is with us, guiding us.”
Sandi Gleason was treasurer of the association and someone Dendys and Vallevand always saw around when they were teenagers, organizing the tournament. “Now I’m that person kids see around, organizing,” says Dendys. Gleason subtly provided mentorship and leadership. Dendys says, “Sandi’s always kind of been there in some respects.”
Gleason passed away from cancer on December 24, 2013. Last year’s tournament was the first one her grandson, Breyden, played in. Gleason missed it. Vallevand and Dendys gave people a year to grieve, to honour the family. This year they’re acknowledging how much Gleason meant.
For the first time the hockey tournament is being dedicated to someone — to Sandi. Vallevand and Dendys laugh when they imagine how she’d react to the dedication. Dendys: “It was a hard decision because she was so much about fairness and equality. “She’d be like, ‘Are you going to do that for everyone?’” And, no, “We wouldn’t do that again. It’s probably a one-time thing.”
The tournament poster, designed by Lance Burton, features a puck in the centre with “#22” on it, Gleason’s number. Not her hockey number. She was a ball player. Under that is her signature. It’s artful. “Don’t ask us how we got that.”
The nods to Gleason are small, personal, and in the centre of the poster. Fitting, as she is described as modest and fair, but always there. The heart of the tournament. Dendys says, “She was the glue.” Vallevand says Gleason was all, “These are the rules, and that’s why they’re there.” She wouldn’t change them for one team. It was all about fairness.
The tournament was started in 1977 because natives weren’t allowed to play on regular teams, they didn’t have a venue. Vallevand says Gleason maintained that vision; she made the tournament sail. Dedicating this year’s tournament is a way to hold her up. “This is her legacy.”
An official dedication will happen at the Opening Ceremony, on Friday, March 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Takhini Arena. Diyet and the Dakhká Khwáan Dancers will collaborate on a song.
Vallevand and Dendys are excited for the closing ceremony, too, where Sharon Shorty and Duane Aucoin will assume the roles of Gramma Susie and Cache Creek Charlie. This happens on Sunday, March 22 at around 8:00 p.m.