A hockey team from Nunavut is making history this week as it competes for the first time at the Canada Winter Games in Red Deer, Alta.
“It means so much to me,” team captain Max Joy said. “Coming from Iqaluit, living there my whole life, it’s just so incredible to be here.”
The underdog team entered the tournament as the 13th seed but skated to a 5-3 victory over Team Yukon in their debut game before falling to Team PEI and Team Northwest Territories on Monday.
“For us, it’s just about enjoying the experience, realizing where we’ve come from,” said Martin Joy, Team Nunavut’s head coach and Max’s father. “We’ve made history and it’s a fantastic experience for them.”
Martin said the idea to bring a hockey team from Nunavut to the Canada Winter Games was sparked four years ago, but turning that dream into a reality wasn’t an easy task. Even getting all the players on the team together for training camps proved to be a challenge.
“Usually when we try and get together for camps a few of the kids get ‘weathered out,’ so it’s been pretty tough,” Max said.
The young athletes on the team are spread out across about 5,000 kilometres of difficult northern terrain, coming together from communities across the vast territory, including Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Coral Harbour, Chesterfield Inlet and Whale Cove. Kids in those communities typically grow up playing hockey informally on frozen ponds instead of as part of a league.
“You just show up and play basically, there is no organized hockey, there are no leagues you can play in,” said Josie Cote, a 16-year-old player from Iqaluit.
The vast distances and adverse weather aren’t the only challenges these young athletes have to face when taking to the ice.
“We have some players that mostly speak Inuktitut as well, so there is the translation of the game from modern techniques to Inuktitut and just the understanding of the game because if you’re playing with your friends, you don’t know a lot of systems, you don’t know a lot of structured play,” Martin said.
Travelling to the Red Deer games has also been incredibly expensive. Martin said getting the team from the north to Ottawa for training camps cost upwards of $70,000. But Max said for the players, the experience of taking to the ice and representing their home territory on a national stage has been priceless.
“It’s just insane. I don’t even have words, it just means everything,” he said.
WATCH: Nunavut hockey team debuts at Canada Winter Games
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