Cree Nation Bears shine at international pee-wee tournament

·4 min read

The Cree Nation Bears impressed at their first appearance at the Quebec International Pee-Wee Hockey Tournament in Quebec City May 1-15. The Bears won their first two games at the prestigious tournament before being eliminated by an Italian team.

After a two-year break because of the Covid pandemic, one of the largest international minor hockey competitions resumed with 144 teams from Canada, the United States and Europe. While Cree players had previously played in the tournament on other teams, this team of 11-13-year-old all-stars from Eeyou Istchee were pioneers.

“This is the first time a Cree team played an international tournament,” said head coach William Saganash. “It was a real honour for them, and they were happy. We told them you’ll be making history. This is something you can look back on years down the road and say I played in this tournament.”

The team was welcomed with a pre-game ceremony attended by Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty, Huron-Wendat Nation Grand Chief Rémy Vincent, and Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs Minister Ian Lafrenière. Gull-Masty wore the team’s jersey visiting players in the locker room before they hit the ice and to drop the first puck in a ceremonial face-off.

“I’m absolutely thrilled with their performance,” Gull-Masty said. “These kids are excellent athletes and I really believe in sports supporting the development of our children. It was a proud moment for the Cree Nation – it will be a lifelong memory for them.”

The Grand Chief showcased their achievements on social media and expressed special pride in female goaltender, Leesha Angie Grant, who delivered a stellar performance in the first game’s come-from-behind victory.

“The first period they were nervous,” recalled Saganash. “I said, ‘Boys, calm down now,’ then they started playing some hockey – when they tied it up, they were on the go. They went 3-on-3 in overtime, then won in a shootout. They really put on a show and hit the headline news. The next day they were in the newspapers.”

The Bears won their second game against the Saint-Laurent Spartans 3-2, but it came with a cost as Grant left with a severe concussion after getting too many pucks to the head. The tournament doctor recommended she sit out remaining games.

“She was a tough little player,” Saganash commented. “I know she’s going to recover but she has to stay away from sports a while on doctor’s orders. I hope she can come back next season.”

Grant wants to return to the Bears. She’s also been invited to try out for Team Eastern Door and the North, an elite team based in Kahnawake preparing for a tournament in Manitoba. With her father Lee-Roy Blacksmith, she enjoyed exploring the city’s landmarks – including a statue of goaltender Manon Rhéaume, the first and only woman to play an NHL exhibition game.

“It was the best week of my life,” Grant told the Nation, unfazed by the tournament’s tougher competition. “It was better than playing against girls.”

Grant’s father and grandfather both played elite hockey as goaltenders. She offers the same advice they gave her: have fun, work hard and listen to your parents. Her favourite experience was trading tournament pin souvenirs with players from other teams – it was so fun she missed a visit from Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey team.

Grant moved to play hockey and attend school in Waswanipi this year, though Saganash noted that keeping the team together was complicated by the pandemic. The Cree School Board gave players the option of returning home or staying with the community.

When the team was brought together at the beginning of the season, several players previously knew each other from summertime Triple-A camps in Amos. Each week, they would have extensive ice-time along with off-ice sessions of light weightlifting, running and stretching exercises.

“When we first saw them, we thought we had a lot of work to get them to the level they should be playing,” said Saganash. “We saw the difference from the beginning to where they are today in how much they had improved in hockey. We were proud.”

The Bears coaching staff include manager Andy Metabie, assistant coaches Silas Mattawashish and John Napash, trainer Kyle Blacksmith and “doctor” Sammy Blacksmith. Their Adidas-sponsored gear included jerseys designed by Cree artist Landen Spencer. Each player’s name was in Cree syllabics and featured colours honouring the “Every Child Matters” and MMIWG movements.

In the end, the Bears placed sixth out of 20 teams in the BB division. Saganash hopes their success inspires other young Cree players to try out for the team, which he understands requires a dedicated family support system.

“I encourage parents to support their children,” said Saganash. “Taking your child to a different community is tough but sometimes those are the sacrifices you need to take your child to the next level. Those that want to come forward to the Cree Nation Bears, don’t be shy. You’ll have an opportunity to play in these types of tournaments.”

Patrick Quinn, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nation

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