Rankin Inlet will send a team to the Chief Thunderstick National Hockey Championship in Saskatchewan this August.
A squad from the community travelled to the tournament in 2019 and made it to the quarter-finals before being eliminated. This year, the team has its sights set on emerging as the champs.
“Rankin doesn’t send teams away just to do good. If we go, we’re in it to win it,” team manager Roger Tagoona told Kivalliq News.
The national Indigenous men’s hockey tournament is named in honour of the late Fred Sasakamoose, who is considered the first Indigenous person to play in the National Hockey League.
Sasakamoose was given the name Chief Thunderstick by representatives of the Kamloops Indian Band when he played senior men’s hockey in B.C. during the late 1950s.
Tagoona, who has competed in various national Indigenous tournaments, said getting to compete against all-Indigenous teams adds a layer of camaraderie among the players.
“It’s nice to just play hockey. You don’t have to worry about any racists words in the game,” he said. “It’s just a bunch of guys playing hard.”
Unlike most senior men’s hockey, the Chief Thunderstick event is full body contact, which plays in Rankin’s favour.
“It’s big boy hockey,” said Tagoona.
The invite-only tournament will include 32 teams from Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia and Nunavut.
Past editions of the event have attracted former pros, including former NHLer Dwight King.
“The first thing you notice is how high the level of play is,” said Tagoona. “You have all these great players from these reserves and they’re representing their communities, so the effort is there.”
There were only 20 teams originally scheduled to play this year but thanks to the relaxing of pandemic restrictions in the province it was expanded to 32.
Rankin ended up being the last of the 32 teams to register. Because the Kivalliq entry finished in the top eight during the last tournament, the team will be seeded in a bracket that guarantees it won’t play against the highest-ranked teams until the playoffs.
Tagoona said he’s still finalizing the roster for the upcoming action. For the most part, the squad will be made up of players who went in 2019. However, this year Rankin plans to bring more players to account for the injuries that add up over the course of a full-contact tournament.
“We were kind of understaffed last time – with the hitting and all the games, you end up with a few injuries,” he said. “That was our downfall last time – by the end we didn’t have enough legs.”
This year’s tournament is scheduled to go ahead in August. Organizers are awaiting a decision on whether fans will be able to attend the games.
“It looks very promising based on Saskatchewan’s reopening plan,” reads a statement from tournament organizers.