Just a few years ago, competitive hockey on Big River First Nation was an afterthought with dwindling registration numbers and an arena that was close to being condemned.
But since its grand opening last fall, the Jim Neilson Sports Complex has become a cornerstone of the community.
“Every time I walk in those doors I can’t stop smiling,” said Big River First Nation CEO Derek Klein.
“The arena here in the community is a safe haven for the children. The biggest thing is we want to have something together when the children came to school, there was some incentive to get sports and rec with them.”
A decade ago, the $42-million rink was the ultimate vision for Klein who has served as the leading voice towards its construction.
Klein’s work is now being recognized at hockey’s highest level, nominated for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award which recognizes individuals who have made a difference in their communities through the sport of hockey.
“I basically look at myself as the captain of the team,” said Klein. “We have so many great people out there that are helping, I’m just one of many that could have gotten this recognition. To be recognized with a group of many people, it’s very humbling.”
Named after Big River First Nation trailblazer and NHL veteran Jim Neilson, the rink features seating for 1,500 fans and also includes an artificial soccer field and space for cultural events.
Brenda Cromartie, who has worked closely with Klein for many hockey initiatives on the First Nation as coordinator of Big River Hockey, said it’s a well-deserved honour for an individual who has furthered the game for hundreds of kids in the community.
“He’s a force to be reckoned with,” said Cromartie. “He’s the one who has started everything out here. Basically it’s just like Field of Dreams where, you know, ‘If you build it, they will come.’ He built it and they’re coming.”
In a short period since its opening, the arena has not only drawn more indigenous kids to hockey but the adjoining Chief John Keenatch High School has seen an increase in enrolment of close to 100 students.
According to Cromartie, teams from Big River are now competing in a dozen different leagues.
Klein has also led a partnership with Neilson’s former NHL team in the New York Rangers to recently bring a group of Big River female athletes to New York City, getting the chance to skate at Madison Square Garden and hit the ice at the Rangers’ practice facility, the latter of which has never been done before.
That’s opened the doors for a new hockey exchange program between Big River First Nation and Rangers, slated for 2024.
“The following year, the kids from Big River are going to go to Harlem and experience their life over there in New York.”
It’s not just bragging rights that Klein is in the running for, as both the Canadian and American winners of the Willie O’Ree Community Award will receive $25,000 that will be used towards the charity of their choice.
For Klein, though, that prize comes second to the knowledge that generations of Big River children will have the chance to improve their lives through sport.
“A lot of these children, they don’t have a lot,” said Klein. “So, to give them the opportunity to compete and to get educated is huge. It would be great to win but you know what? We already won.”
Online voting will be taken into consideration for who will be awarded the title and prize money, with voting remaining open on the NHL’s website through April 16.
The Canadian winner will be announced during a Stanley Cup Final game this NHL post-season.