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Home Story Why hockey is more than a game in the NWT

Why hockey is more than a game in the NWT

Nearly everyone in the Northwest Territories is keen to see cold weather arrive. That’s because, for our many sports enthusiasts, winter means frozen lakes and ponds, also known as the best locations to enjoy one of the most popular cold weather activities in Canada — ice hockey. 

When you’re in the NWT, you don’t even need an arena to play ice hockey: top up your thermos with steaming coffee or hot cocoa, grab your skates and hockey stick, and set out to the nearest pond for a glorious afternoon of shinny. With no formal rules or specific positions and, often, no goaltenders, shinny is improvised ice hockey played in its purest form

But no matter where you play the game, you’ll discover ice hockey in the NWT is a weekend ritual for all ages.

NWT — Home to Hockey

The territory’s grand passion for ice hockey makes sense when you consider the first recorded ice hockey game in history took place on Great Bear Lake nearly two hundred years ago in late 1825. That’s when restless crewmembers from one of Sir John Franklin’s early Arctic expeditions strapped on skates and idled away their days on the frozen lake. 

Overwintering at a Hudson’s Bay post named Fort Franklin (now known as Délįne), these men — Brits with a fondness for field hockey — were said to fly across the ice like they were floating, according to the account of a Dene elder. 

So, it’s no surprise that today teams from Délįne continue to compete enthusiastically in territory-wide tournaments and proudly proclaim that ice hockey got its start in their community.

Yellowknife Scores High in Outdoor Rinks

In the centre of the quirky Yellowknife neighbourhood of Houseboat Bay you can enjoy ice hockey on what might be the most idyllic pond hockey rink in all of Canada.

Each year, as soon as the ice is thick enough, Yellowknife’s house boaters shovel off a patch of Great Slave Lake and cobble together an impressive outdoor rink. It forms part of a sprawling winter playground, where dog teams, bush planes, cross-country skiers, and the giant SnowKing castle make Yellowknife Bay busier than the capital city’s downtown.

This paradise for pond hockey lovers plays host to regular Saturday afternoon games where everyone is welcome, bringing together players of all ages and aptitudes for a lively, fun-filled celebration of one of Canada’s greatest winter sports.

However, this iconic Saturday get-together is not the only game happening in the city. All around Yellowknife, you’ll find ice hockey for every level happening on many well-maintained pond rinks. The active minor hockey association includes the Yellowknife Knights, a team that plays in the Premier Minor Hockey League and serves as the Winnipeg Aces’ farm team. Make your way to any of the pond hockey rinks around Yellowknife, and you may just share the ice with one of these future players.

Yellowknife's Hockey Mania is Legendary

In the early days of Yellowknife, the town’s gold mines put together teams to play on the Back Bay rinks. Later, established mines raised the stakes by hiring southern ringers — that is, hockey players who were better than the local ones — to work at the mine during the day and play on the ice by night. 

After 1952, these epic, hard-hitting games moved indoors to the now-demolished Gerry Murphy Arena, where the rafters were jammed with mothers and children, wives and girlfriends, bootleggers and gamblers. They cheered on teams like Con Cougars, the Giant Grizzlies, and Town team. It was a fantastic venue for Yellowknifers to blow off steam before CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada aired every Saturday.

Inter-community and regional hockey rivalries are not a thing of the past, but persist to this day, with passions running as high as ever. 

NWT Hockey Tournaments Bring out the Fans

Teams from across the Western Arctic, the Beaufort Delta Region to the Mackenzie Delta, converge on Inuvik every February for the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation’s (IRC) Native Hockey Tournament when fans fill the bleachers, rooting for their local teams. 

These include the Inuvik Huskies, Aklavik Killer Bees, and the Tuk Bulldogs. They’re all vying for the coveted silver IRC Cup, started in 1989 by the late Roy Ipana, a well-known Inuvialuit hunter, trapper, and advocate for Arctic sports. Now, hockey fans and players fill the Roy “Sugloo” Ipana Arena, named in his honour.

Similar hockey tournaments take place in Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Hay River, and Yellowknife, which attract men’s, women’s, old-timer and minor hockey teams from across the North. 

In Hay River? Rousing Pond Hockey Awaits

Nowhere do they take pond hockey more seriously than in the town of Hay River where the Polar Pond Hockey Tournament follows in the rich tradition of pond hockey competition in the NWT.

Every March, tournament organizers clear off eight separate ice rinks on the Hay River, which are kept smooth by an ice-grooming Zamboni. Players from across Canada and the world come to play in the tournament, which has categories for a variety of ages, genders, and skill levels. 

They all enjoy a weekend watching quick wrist shots, as players make sure they keep the top hand out in front while speeding the puck forward. Along with good food, live music, and a beer garden, this tournament is probably the most fun you can have with skates on.

It’s no wonder this love of hockey has propelled some NWT’ers to National Hockey League (NHL) careers. This includes Hay River-born and Pine Point-raised Geoff Sanderson, who scored more than 350 NHL goals, and Yellowknifers Vic Mercredi and Greg Vaydik, who played for the Atlanta Flames and Chicago Blackhawks, respectively. And it was all born on pond hockey rinks in the Spectacular NWT. 

Excited to see a true winter wonderland? Read more about what Northerners look forward to every winter and the ways you can keep busy (and warm!) on your authentic Northern experience.Find the best way to fill your day while you wait for the Northern Lights to return at nightfall with more winter activities to do during your visit to the NWT.

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