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Alberta Native Hockey provincial tournament grows the game and fuels NHL dreams

By Admin User on April 23, 2018


Edmonton’s hockey rinks are getting a workout this weekend as the Albert Native Hockey Council (ANHC) hosts the 25th annual Alberta Native Hockey provincial tournament in the City of Champions from April 5 to 8.

More than 250 teams ranging from peewee to midget age groups have taken over several rinks across Edmonton, playing in both “recreation” and “elite” divisions. The tournament features both boys and girls teams and organizers say there are more than 3500 players participating this year.


A safe zone

All participants must be of First Nations descent to play, which players and parents agree eliminates the racial prejudices many natives experience playing regular organized hockey.

“It’s fun playing against other natives because in other leagues it’s pretty prejudiced,” said Keane Cardinal, a player in his third year at the tournament.

“This year I played on a native team in our league–like we had an all-native team, pretty much–but the other coaches were calling us down from the bench. It gets annoying but I’ve gotten used to it.”

The president of the Alberta Native Hockey Council, Greg Sparklingeyes, says that kind of experience is exactly why they still host an all-native tournament each year.

“Racism still exists in the province,” Sparklingeyes said.

“This is a rejuvenator for kids who have experienced things with their league teams or other players. I think it’s a way of coming together and playing with players where they don’t have to experience some of the stuff they experience during the regular season.”


More than just hockey

Many participants see the tournament as a chance to simply enjoy the game in a safer environment. Others use it as a chance to visit and socialize with friends and family members from around the province.

Duane Kootenay has three children playing in the tournament and says it’s about more than the game itself.

“For myself as a parent, I look forward to it because you get a chance to catch up with some of the relatives and friends you don’t see,” Kootenay said.

Kootenay, like Sparklingeyes, echoes that having an all-native tournament is a benefit to native culture as a whole.

“We look forward to it because we have so much negative news around First Nations people so it’s good to see the native people having a great time without any alcohol involved,” Kootenay said.

“A lot of families have children playing at multiple levels, so here’s a chance for family members to follow all the kids,” Sparklingeyes said.

“They get to bump into old friends and people they know from other communities, so it’s a big socializing event also.”



Since its inception in 1993, the tournament has grown from 68 teams to over 250. The growth has come both in the numbers and in the quality of the game.

“The hockey is getting better–more competitive. A few years back it was much smaller and it wasn’t as competitive,” Kootenay said.

“For the girls here, you were lucky to have a three or our teams of girls in each division. Now you have eight or nine teams in each division and it’s good to watch.”


Reaching for the stars

Several players who have played in this tournament have gone on to NHL careers. Rene Bourque, Jordin Tootoo and Sheldon Souray, among others, give current players something to strive towards.

That being said, it’s not particularly common for natives to reach the NHL level. The first to do it was Saskatchewan-born Fred Sasakamoose in 1953, who played with the Chicago Blackhawks.

“Ultimately you have a lot of kids shooting to play at the highest level they can play at. A lot of them are looking to play Junior A or in the WHL, that kind of thing,” Sparklingeyes said.

“And I think a lot of them realize that a scholarship is in the back of their mind too. We have several guys who have been in the tournament and have gotten scholarships.”


Next year and beyond

Sparklingeyes expects the tournament to bring over $23 million into Edmonton’s economy, with hotels and restaurants reaping most of the benefits.

He added that if they can acquire more ice time from the city they will expand the number of teams for future tournaments. Plans for next year’s tournament are already in place.




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