BIG RIVER FIRST NATION — Deegan Wapass is one of the hockey players following in the skate tracks of role model and Big River First Nation member Jim Neilson.
Construction started Wednesday on the Jim Neilson Sports Complex, named in honour of the beloved National Hockey League defenceman. It's likely to become a touchstone for Wapass and other young hockey players.
When it's finished, Wapass will be able to train on artificial ice that will be available for most of the year, in an arena capable of accomadating about 1,000 people. The 16-year-old is trying out for AAA hockey, but practising so far has been difficult in a community rink that's closed for much of the year.
"There were only six teams at the time, but (Neilson) got in (the NHL)," Wapass said. "He's a pretty good role model."
Local leaders put shovels to the ground on Wednesday and reflected on Neilson's legacy while his son, David, sat in the audience with his family.
Many attendees at the ceremony wore number 15 New York Rangers shirts in honour of the hockey player, who spent 12 of his 16 NHL seasons with the team. Neilson died at 78 last November.
Big River First Nation CEO Derek Klein said preparations for building a complex have been underway for about 10 years. The idea for the arena came from a similar facility in Warman.
The school is federally funded and getting closer to completion for a planned 500 students. The arena is expected to cost about $11 million and the high school about $28 million, he said.
Klein expects physical education at the school to include about an hour of skating each day at the rink, from September to June. He also plans for the arena to host more hockey training for youth. The rink will be open 10 to 12 months out of the year, he said.
The facility should be completed by April 2022, to be ready for the school year that fall, he said.
Michelle Bill, an economic development officer with the band, was part of the team that pushed the project forward. She said it will be a positive change for the First Nation, which has a significant youth population. Seeing it come full circle felt surreal for her.
"To invest in our kids in this way, it's huge for us," she said.
"Here's something for (our youth) to look forward to now," Chief Jack Rayne said. "We talk about suicides and nothing to do for our youth. This is something for them to do, something huge."
Rayne, who is Neilson's great grandson, said it's the perfect way to represent the hockey player's legacy. He wishes he had something like the arena when he grew up playing pond hockey, he added.
"We're arming our kids with all this talent. We're going to be pumping out a lot of future NHL players from our community. I don't have the words for that," he said.
David, Neilson's son, said his father was a quiet, humble man who would have needed some time to process the honour.
The four-time all-star and Norris Trophy candidate was the son of a Cree mother and Danish father, who entered St. Patrick’s Orphanage in Prince Albert at age five and discovered his gift for hockey in the years he spent there.
His characteristic nose, rearranged by years of competition on the ice, was the trademark of a tough, unflappable defenceman. He debuted on the ice in the 1962-63 NHL season and stayed until 1978-79, when he joined the WHA's Edmonton Oilers alongside a young Wayne Gretzky.
In 2019, Neilson's three kids launched an effort to have him recognized in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It's a story worth telling: one man, raised in an orphanage, who skated his way to New York City and later inspired generations of young hockey players to skate in an arena bearing his name.
"Sometimes the opportunities aren't always there. Now there's some opportunity: to be really busy in sports and athletics," David said. "If anything, dad didn't understand how big his reach was."
Nick Pearce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The StarPhoenix