The Arctic Winter Games (AWG) Team Nunavut midgets nipped Iqaluit 5-3 in a thrilling final to claim the 2018 Polar Bear Plate midget/juvenile championship in front of a packed arena in Rankin Inlet on Feb. 18.
Arviat topped Team Rankin Inlet to claim bronze at the event, which also featured the host Rankin Rock midget squad, Baker Lake, Chesterfield Inlet, Coral Harbour, Naujaat and Whale Cove.
The majority of games during the four-day tournament (Feb. 15-18) were sold out, with the maximum number of passes sold each day.
Team Nunavut head coach Denis Lambe said he always looks forward to coaching in Rankin and this year was no exception.
He said Rankin rec co-ordinator David Clark ran another well-organized event this year, with solid officiating, game star awards, paramedics on duty and a well-balanced scheduled for the 10 teams participating in a very competitive tournament.
"I knew, while we were at the midget territorial in Arviat this past year, we'd be sending the AWG team to the Plate this year," said Lambe.
"When I saw the calibre of players we had – with their speed and quickness – I knew we had a real chance of winning the Plate this time.
"Another big thing with this team, whether the players are from the Kivalliq or Baffin, is they all seem to be good friends.
"I told the players we were going to win this tournament and, when they bought into the system I was running and played their hearts out, there was no looking back and that's why we left with the Plate."
The overall speed of Team Nunavut and the physical conditioning of its players paid big dividends as the tournament went on.
Lambe said he knew Iqaluit had a short bench, and drew up a game plan to use to the midgets' advantage.
He said he told his players if they kept pushing the pace in the final, Iqaluit's legs were going to run out sooner or later.
"We switched our lines a bit and kept dumping the puck into the Iqaluit end to make them skate, and we can use an old Don Cherry line ("You dump the puck and arrive in ill-humour") to describe how we went about it.
"Our players executed the game plan perfectly and we just kept wearing the Iqaluit players down as the game went on.
"The one weakness we had as a team was getting into penalty trouble, and that led to us having eight 5-on-3 situations against us in two games.
"What helped us get out of that mess is that although we have a set power play, we don't use the same players killing penalties.
"We filled roles as we selected our team and, while it might be a bit of a cliche, we might not have picked all the best players for the AWG team, but we picked all the right players."
Lambe said it was huge for Team Nunavut to be able to use the Plate as a tune-up tournament for the AWG.
He said there's all sorts of great practice players out there when it comes to hockey, but, until you put them in a game situation and make them face a little adversity, you don't how they'll react in a game when all the chips are down.
"I can say one thing for sure: there is no quit in this team.
"Having such a competitive, popular and well-organized tournament like the Plate just before the AWG gives our players that much more confidence as they head to Hay River to play against kids their own age.
"By winning the Plate, they all have confidence and trust in each other now.
"And there wasn't a player or coach who didn't have goosebumps heading out for the gold medal game in that Rankin barn – it was so loud and exciting – so we're as ready for Hay River as we're ever going to be."