Rankin Inlet finished in the top four at the Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstick” National Hockey Championship, which wrapped up in Saskatoon on Aug. 15.
The result was in improvement on Rankin’s top eight finish in their first appearance at the national Indigenous men’s tournament last year. This year they almost made it to the finals but they dropped a hard-fought 2-1 battle to Eagle Lake First Nation in the semis.
“We’re proud to be from Rankin and that’s who we were playing for and I hope we made Nunavut proud. We weren’t out there playing for ourselves we were playing for so much more,” team captain Roger Tagoona said in an interview.
The tournament is named in honour of the late Fred Sasakamoose, who is considered the first Indigenous person to play in the National Hockey League. This year’s invite-only tournament featured 32 First Nations teams from across Canada. Tagoona said Rankin faced an uphill battle from the start by being placed in a pool with lots of strong teams.
“We didn’t have any easy games at all,” Tagoona said.
After winning their first game 5-1 they beat Canoe Lake, who would were the eventual tournament champs, by a score of 6-2.
In their last round-robin game Rankin had to face former NHLer and two-time Stanley Cup champion Dwight King, who was playing for Onion Lake.
“It was pretty neat to be out there against him but you still want to win so you can’t stand there in awe of him for too long,” said Tagoona.
Rankin played their backup goalie for the game and managed to walk away with a 2-2 tie, which put them in the top of thier pool at the end of round robin play. That set them up for round-of-16 playoff game against the Samson Hawks.
In that game Rankin got out to an early 2-0 lead but the Hawks pushed back hard. The Hawks eventually tied the game near the end of the third. They almost got the go-ahead goal near the end but Rankin’s starting goalie Seth Ningeongan kept them in the game.
“He was actually going to be the backup goalie for us in the tournament,” Tagoona said. “He stepped in and totally stole the show for us.”
With the game tied, they went to 3-on-3 overtime. On his first shift of the extra period Daniel McKitrick won the game for Rankin with a beautiful wraparound goal.
“He carried us the last tournament and he stepped up big with that goal,” Tagoona said of Mckitric.
In the quartefinals Rankin was matched up against Opaskwayak Cree Nation, the same community where Jordin and Terrence Tootoo got their start in junior hockey.
Although there is a lot of history between the two communities, there was no love lost on the ice. Rankin once again went up 2-0 early in that game. OCN managed to get a goal on the board and they were pushing hard for another at the end of the third, but Ningeongan stepped up again to give Rankin the victory.
“We had bodies flying everywhere and the puck was in the crease but somehow it stayed out,” Tagoona said.
In the semi-finals Rankin faced off against Eagle Lake. Rankin gave up a goal in first six minutes of the game on a shot from a weird angle.
The rest of the period went at a relatively slow pace until Eagle Lake’s goalie had to make a big save in the final minute.
Rankin started throwing the body a bit more in the second period. After a few big hits in the defensive zone Rankin got a breakaway opportunity but Eagle Lake’s goalie shut the door.
Eagle Lake got another goal on a lucky bounce four minutes into the third. Rankin fought back but was unable to generate many chances. They pulled the goalie with more than three minutes left to try and even it up. Then with 1:17 left in the period McKitrick scored to make it one-goal game. The team pushed hard and managed to keep pressure on Eagle Lake. With four seconds left in the game they rang a shot off the cross bar but it was too little too late.
While it wasn’t the championship finish the team was hoping for Tagoona said the team has made a lot of progress.
“Obviously you want to win the championship but you have to look at is a huge success on our part. Our goal was to make it further than we did last year so we accomplished that,” Tagoona said.-
He added that while the team fought as hard as possible on the ice, they couldn’t have done it without the sponsorship of Nunavut Investments, Calm Air, EPLS, the Hamlet of Rankin Inlet, Agnico Eagle, Rankin Inlet Senior Mens Hockey, KIA, Atuqtuarvik Corporation and Avid Insurance. Tagoona also credited his dad Patrick Tagoona with helping organize the team.
Although it’s a year away Tagoona said the young Rankin team will be looking to improve even more for the next tournament.
“Last year we just wanted to show we belonged and we made a statement with our first appearance. This year there was a little more expectation. We showed we’re not just a good team, we’re a contending team.”