They still had to perform once they were on the ice, but Courage Bear, the manager of Saskatchewan’s female and male entries at this year’s National Aboriginal Hockey Championships (NAHC), believes both teams were successful this year in large part because of what they did before the tournament even started.
Both Saskatchewan clubs captured gold medals in their categories at the NAHC, which concluded April 30 in Saskatoon.
This marked the first time the Saskatchewan girls’ club had struck gold at the tournament, which has been held every year since 2001. The team beat Quebec-based Eastern Door and the North (EDN) 7-3 in its championship final.
As for the Saskatchewan boys’ squad, it won its fourth consecutive gold medal at the NAHC. It edged EDN 4-3 in overtime in its gold-medal match.
“We spend a lot of time preparing them,” Bear said. That’s why he believes the Saskatchewan clubs have had their share of success in recent years at the NAHC.
Prior to naming their rosters, team officials held various identification camps throughout the province. And this year the two Saskatchewan clubs played three exhibition matches each before the NAHC.
“That really helps in our preparations,” Bear said, adding team members have an opportunity to gel before competing in the national tournament.
Saskatchewan’s male entry featured 24 players. Ten of these individuals had previously played in the tournament.
But it wasn’t just the veterans who led the club.
“We had contributions from everybody,” Bear said. “We had four lines and everybody contributed.”
Damien Kulynych, a left winger with the Saskatchewan club, was the overtime hero in the gold-medal contest. He scored about seven minutes into OT to give his side another gold medal.
As is evidenced by the fact the gold-medal game required extra time to determine a winner, Bear said capturing yet another NAHC title was no easy chore.
“Eastern Door had a heck of a hockey team,” he said. “Fortunately we came out on top. It could have gone either way.”
As for the Saskatchewan girls’ club, this signified the first year it had advanced to the championship final at the NAHC.
It had captured the bronze medal on several occasions at the NAHC, most recently at the 2009 event held in Winnipeg.
“It was awesome for them to win,” Bear said. “They worked so hard for it.”
About 15 of the players on Saskatchewan’s roster had competed in the tournament before. And for many of them, more than once.
“Some girls had played for us for four or five years,” Bear added. “It was nice for them to win.”
The NAHC features both bantam (14-15) and midget (16-17) players. The female division, however, allows clubs to carry as many as five overage players, who can be up to 19.
Saskatchewan’s roster included four overagers.
A total of 13 teams—seven boys and six girls—competed at this year’s nationals.
Up until mid-January, it appeared there might not even be a NAHC this year. That’s because despite some extended deadlines, no group had stepped forward to declare its intention of hosting the tournament.
The Saskatoon Tribal Council, which was keen to stage the 2012 event, agreed to also run this year’s tourney.
“I was very happy with all the comments we heard,” said tournament organizer Mark Arcand. “The teams that were there were all very impressed we were able to do everything in two-and-a-half months. It was very good to hear that.”
Traditionally both the girls’ and boys’ categories attract about 10 entrants each. Some clubs did not take part this year because of the lateness in announcing a host site.
Arcand was thrilled though with the number of clubs that showed up on relatively short notice.
“It was excellent,” he said. “At the end of the day we decided to have the event for the kids.”
Besides Saskatchewan and EDN, others that participated in the boys’ category were Ontario, British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and the Northwest Territories.
The girls’ division featured the same entrants, minus Ontario, which did not ice a squad.
Since it has already been determined that Saskatoon will also stage the 2012 NAHC, Arcand is anticipating that event will feature 18 to 20 teams.
Arcand added tournament organizers are already looking for ways to spruce up next year’s event. Some possibilities include staging all-star games and all-star competitions.
“It’s a pretty hectic week for the kids,” Arcand said. “Maybe after the round-robin we can have a fun day for them (with all-star events).”
Arcand believes all-star festivities would sustain interest from players whose teams are not faring well at the tournament.
“It’s about showcasing their talents,” Arcand added.