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Why hockey is more than a game in the Northwest Territories

A game of pond hockey is played in Hay River

Why hockey is more than a game in the Northwest Territories

Photo Credit: Sarah Pruys

It’s a Saturday ritual.
Fill a thermos with steaming coffee or hot cocoa, grab your skates and stick and set out to the nearest pond for a glorious afternoon of shinny—improvised hockey played in its purest from. For some in the Northwest Territories, that game is held on what might be the most idyllic pond hockey rink in all of Canada, smack in the centre of its quirkiest neighbourhood: Yellowknife’s Houseboat Bay.

Each year, as soon as the ice is thick enough, Yellowknife’s houseboaters shovel off a patch of Great Slave Lake and proudly cobble together an impressive outdoor rink. It forms part of a sprawling winter playground, where dog teams, bush planes, cross-country skiers and a giant SnowKing castle make Yellowknife Bay busier than the capital city’s downtown. And this paradise for pond hockey-lovers plays host to a regular Saturday afternoon game where everyone is welcome, bringing together players of all ages and aptitudes for a lively, fun-filled celebration of the world’s greatest sport.

A wood cut illustration of hockey in Deline from George Back's journals

But this Saturday get-together is far from the only game happening in the city. Or the Northwest Territories, for that matter. And that makes sense, seeing as some believe the first recorded hockey game in history took place on these frozen lakes.

In late 1825, restless crew members from one of Sir John Franklin’s early Arctic expeditions strapped on skates and idled away the days on Great Bear Lake. Overwintering at Fort Franklin, 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 local Dene elder. No surprise then that when teams from Délįne (the community known until recently as Fort Franklin) compete in territory-wide tournaments today, they dangle, dipsy-doodle and toe-drag their opponents into submission.

Although some might struggle through the long, cold winters, residents of the Northwest Territories certainly won’t be heard complaining. It just means they get to play more puck. And nowhere do they take pond hockey more seriously than in Hay River. Every March, the South Slave community’s annual Polar Pond Hockey Tournament draws players from across Canada and the world for a weekend of wrist-shot wizardry. Organizers clear off eight separate ice sheets on the mighty Hay River, all kept immaculately smooth by a Zamboni. (Yes, you read that correctly.) The tournament has categories for a variety of ages, genders and skill levels, along with good food, live music and a beer garden. It’s probably the most fun you can have with skates on.

The Polar Pond Hockey Tournament follows in the rich tradition of pond-hockey competition in the Northwest Territories. In Yellowknife’s early days, each of the town’s gold mines put together teams to battle for local bragging rights on Back Bay rinks. Later, the established mines raised the stakes by hiring southern ringers. These men were paid good money to perform cushy jobs at the mine during the day, but wage war on the ice by night. These epic, hard-hitting games moved indoors to the Gerry Murphy Arena, making the Murphdome the place to be on Saturday nights. Rafters were jammed with mothers and children, wives and girlfriends, bootleggers and gamblers, who cheered on the Con Cougars, the Giant Grizzlies or the Town team, giving Yellowknifers a venue to blow off steam back before you could yell at your TV during Hockey Night in Canada.

male players playing hockey

Former NHL Stars visit Délįne in 2016 to take on the locals on the ice.

This scene wasn’t unique to Yellowknife. Inter-community and regional rivalries have always existed and have been contested on the ice. They persist to this day. And passions run just as high as ever. Teams from across the Western Arctic converge on Inuvik every February at the IRC Native Hockey Tournament. This weekend showcases not only some of the most intense hockey around, but it brings communities and families together from across the region as they make the trip to root on their local teams in the pursuit of the cherished IRC Cup. Similar tournaments are held in Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Hay River and Yellowknife, attracting men’s, women’s, old-timer and minor hockey teams from across the North. These are opportune times to visit these communities, which come alive and exude the hospitality that Northerners are famous for to host players who travelled hours, even days, to play the game they love so much.

hockey sticks stuck in the snow waiting for the game to begin
Photo Credit: Sarah Pruys

This love of hockey has taken some NWTers on to NHL careers, from Hay River-born and Pine-Point raised Geoff Sanderson, who tickled the twine more than 350 times, to Yellowknifers Vic Mercredi and Greg Vaydik, who played for the Atlanta Flames and Chicago Blackhawks respectively. And it was all born on those pond hockey rinks. On those Saturday afternoons.

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