The belief was there

When David Clark first gathered the players that would make up the U19 Team Nunavut men’s hockey squad in advance of the 2023 Arctic Winter Games, he told them the goal was to win a gold medal – something Nunavut had never done in hockey until that tournament.

“You plant that seed and let it grow as a coach, and before you know it, they don’t even realize that they’re believing it,” said Clark, on a call from Finland as he attends coaching school.

That team triumphed over Alaska in the finals to win gold in Fort McMurray, earning them Team of the Year and for Clark, Coach of the Year, at the 2023 Sport Nunavut awards.

“I think that’s always been Nunavut’s downfall,” said Clark, reflecting on the achievement. “We’ve always had good teams, but I think we always thought that ‘maybe’ we can win a gold medal, not, ‘We will win a gold medal. We’re going to go win a gold medal.’ It’s confidence but it’s also belief.”

The team bought what he was selling, said Clark, “and it all came out in the most beautiful way it could have.”

He also praised the team’s other coaches, Graham Kusugak and Terrance McLean, for their work in making everything come together.

“I felt thankful, honoured and then right away I thought about the players,” said Clark about his reaction to earning Coach of the Year.

“You don’t coach to win awards, but when you do, it really puts a cherry on top after winning that gold medal.”

The team felt the support from Nunavummiut, wherever they were watching from, said Clark.

“People believed in us,” he said.

In terms of the Xs and Os of coaching, he said the players were familiar with the system he wanted to run: aggressive, tenacious, speed with the puck, a high volume of shots and stingy defence.

The more important part was being a people manager.

“Everything we did from the day we left to the day we got home was planned for every player: when you sleep, when you eat, everything,” said Clark, adding that everyone had a clear role on the team. “If you do that, you’ll have 20 really motivated players to win together. That’s what we did.”

As a sign of the camaraderie the team had, before the tournament, players dyed blonde streaks in their hair. Clark said that was something the leadership group on the team initiated.

“If they feel like they want to do that, then hey, all the power to them,” he said. “You just smile as a coach because they’re trying to find things to bring them together, and I guess that was one of them.”

Clark said he hopes everyone is doing well back home and encourages players to keep working hard and building.

Stewart Burnett, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Kivalliq News