New York youth hockey players welcomed to Big River First Nation for cultural exchange

Click to play video: 'Hockey exchange brings Junior Rangers from NYC to Big River First Nation'
Hockey exchange brings Junior Rangers from NYC to Big River First Nation
WATCH: Young athletes from the Bronx in New York City have travelled to Big River First Nation as part of the Jim Neilson Cultural Exchange program, uniting in hockey in part one of a two-part Global Sports series – Jun 6, 2024

It might look like any other hockey practice this week at the Jim Neilson Sports Complex on the Big River First Nation, but smattered through a group of local youth on the ice are eight kids who picked up the sport a world away.

Kids like 10-year-old Noah Guzman, who is in his third year of lacing up skates.

“I like skating because it’s fun,” said Guzman. “I get to move so fast and I get to use my arms at the same time.”

Guzman and his mother Cindy hail from The Bronx in New York City, discovering hockey after trying a number of different sports to let his energy out.

“We tried other sports and he just didn’t like it,” said Cindy. “But the minute he did ice hockey it was like, ‘This is it mom, I want to do this.'”

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The Guzmans are one of several New York City families who have travelled to Saskatchewan as part of a transformative week on the Big River First Nation, taking part in the inaugural Jim Neilson Cultural Exchange program.

Click to play video: 'New York City youth hockey players receive cultural cross-over on visit to Big River First Nation'
New York City youth hockey players receive cultural cross-over on visit to Big River First Nation

For 14-year-old Madison Vasquez, hockey has provided an outlet to compete on the ice while being able to get a bit of her frustration out on the puck.

Discovering the sport in the seventh grade, she and her mother, Melissa Ramirez, made the decision to hop on a plane alongside a group of their New York Junior Rangers teammates in partnership with the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club to take part in the exchange.

“I’m hoping to understand more about the culture,” said Vasquez. “I feel like that’s the main thing that I wanted to take away from this experience, but I also wanted to get better at hockey.”

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The exchange has featured a focus on hockey skills in the morning, with the New York City players sharing the ice with the Big River locals.

All getting the chance to practice and reach their full potential together.

“They’re showing those values to the children here at Big River and I was like, ‘This is something that we will never forget,'” said Ramirez.

The program is being held in honour of former NHL all-star defenceman Jim Neilson, who played over 1,000 games primarily with the New York Rangers organization between 1962 and 1974.

Passing away in 2020, the arena bearing his name and the cultural exchange are meant to recognize the work Neilson did in both his birth community and NHL home to promote unity through hockey.

“He started his roots here on the First Nation,” said Big River First Nation CEO Derek Klein. “So we’re giving the kids the story of Jim in perseverance and how anyone can make it. But the biggest thing is to have fun and share in each other’s culture.”

This week’s trek from The Bronx to Big River follows a group of Indigenous girls from the First Nation who got the chance to visit New York City last year, which included skating on the ice at Madison Square Garden.

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On-ice sessions in Big River have been led by former Ranger and two-time Stanley Cup champion Adam Graves, who got to know Neilson from his time in the organization.

“Really it’s a celebration of his journey and that’s why we call it the Jim Neilson Cultural Exchange,” said Graves. “He forged that journey from Big River all the way to New York City.”

“It’s about the journey and creating capsules that we will all never forget. Whether you’re a young kid, you’re a parent, you’re a coach out here, it’s all about the journey together.”

Since arriving on Tuesday, the visitors to Big River First Nation have been immersed in Indigenous culture, from participating in a traditional pipe ceremony and fishing lessons to horseback riding and being included in a round dance at a wrap-up powwow on Friday.

According to Big River First Nation council member Sandra Bear, it’s all in an effort to give the young athletes a glimpse into a different way of life.

“Our culture is alive here,” said Bear. “For these kids to come and learn off of our elders, off of our youth and our facilitators, we’re honoured to share that with the people coming from New York.”

While skills like skating and shooting are being taught on the ice, so too are the building blocks of friendship and understanding with players like Guzman getting to speak with kids his own age from an entirely different background.

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“It was cool to learn the way that they lived and it was cool for them to learn the way that I lived,” said Noah. “So it was cool that we can share each other’s stuff.”

Coming from a Puerto Rican family which immigrated to the United States, Cindy remarked culture is an important aspect of their identity in New York.

Now with the knowledge of what life is like on a First Nation in northern Saskatchewan, she added it’s the game of hockey which is helping to bridge two very different communities from the outside.

“If they can learn there is no difference in colour, culture, anything, we can use that for our benefit to make this world even better,” said Cindy. “Some people might just say it’s such a simple game. It’s not because it’s uniting us.”

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