After a three-year hiatus, the 43rd annual Yukon Native Hockey Tournament is back and a women’s division is now part of the games.
This comes as welcome news to Tshayla Nothstein, a hockey player who is a member of the Ross River Dena Council and has Tahltan ancestry.
“It’s a big bang to start the tournament after it being gone for so long,” she said.
Nothstein is an organizer and player for the newly formed Cougars women’s hockey team, which has players from Yukon, B.C., Alberta and Manitoba.
Nothstein said she’s been looking forward to a women’s division since she was a child. She noted while there was one women’s team during the 2019 tournament, an actual division will allow for equal competition.
“It’s not the same caliber of hockey obviously… they’re a little bit bigger and faster than us, right?” she said.
“Especially for women’s division, this is crazy, this is big. There are no other women’s tournaments at all. So, for us to have even just this is huge.”
Michelle Dawson-Beattie, president of the Yukon First Nations Hockey Association which organizes the event, said the women’s division was long overdue. She noted the pandemic was a “blessing in disguise” when it came to forming the division.
“We got to sit down and work with the women’s rec league here in Whitehorse and talk about ‘How did you guys envision this division being?’ and ‘What do you want to see from it?’” she said.
The women’s division includes five teams.
The big tournament
The tournament draws thousands to Whitehorse each spring and has been a mainstay in the city since its inception in 1977.
This year’s tournament will see over 1,100 players from Yukon, N.W.T., B.C. and other areas.
“Everybody’s so excited that we’re finally here,” said Dawson-Beattie. “It’s so nice to finally be back and seeing everybody.”
In 2020, organizers decided to cancel the tournament due to COVID-19 concerns. Tournaments planned for the following two years were also cancelled out of precaution.
Dawson-Beattie said the decision to pause the tournament wasn’t an easy one.
“It’s been really hard. We’ve had the tournament consistently for every year and to have to cancel for three years during my leadership wasn’t the best feeling,” she said.
That’s why she said this year’s tournament is all the more special.
“It’s so nice being back in the arena and hearing people cheer for their teams, have the good concession food and just be around people again and celebrate hockey, but also First Nations culture.”
Dawson-Beattie said this is the biggest tournament yet and has been extended from three to four days to accommodate 42 teams to 56.
The tournament is also expected to generate local revenue.
Dawson-Beattie said in previous years the tournament has generated more than $1 million dollars in just a three-day span.
With an additional day and more teams competing this year, that number is expected to increase.
“People from up north are buying Ski-Doos, four wheelers or trucks. It’s crazy the economic impact this tournament brings,” she said.
Nothstein said for many in the hockey community, the tournament is the social event of the year.
“For our people it’s such a big deal because it’s kind of like the Stanley Cup for (Indigenous) people, right?”
Ryan Manard and Donald Winters, players from Alberta who were asked to join the Tahltan Selects, said they were thrilled to be able to attend.
“I’m excited to see all the teams play. It’s really exciting where we can all come together and have a tournament like this,” Manard said.
Winters, who played in 2018 and is a member of the Sawridge First Nation, agrees.
“It’s the biggest year where I heard they had the most teams, so it’s nice for everybody to come back and play with each other.”
The tournament runs from March 24 to the 26.
Dawson-Beattie said while hockey might be the main focus, community is what really makes the tournament a mainstay.
“Just coming together, celebrating First Nations culture, right? I think that’s a huge part of it.”