Staff of the Beardy's Blackhawks say they are shocked the Beardy's & Okemasis Cree Nation has been told it won't have a team in the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League next season.
"It's hard to believe what they did to the Beardy's community, because this is who is getting hurt here," said Mel Parenteau, the team's longtime general manager.
After a process that required the league's current teams to reapply for standing for next season — which included extending an open invitation for other minor hockey associations to bid for a team — a committee of the Saskatchewan Hockey Association announced its decision this week to move the Beardy's Blackhawks and the Notre Dame Argos to Warman and Estevan, respectively, beginning next season.
When asked if the Blackhawks' position as the only First Nations-run Midget AAA team in Canada was considered in the decision-making process, SHA general manager Kelly McClintock said the communities that were chosen were the ones that best fit the association's criteria.
"It was discussed, but we focused on what the criteria set out," he said.
The criteria included requirements for local coaching resources, a billet co-ordinator, an educational consultant, an agreement with a local school, and the presence of a Midget AA team to ensure there are enough affiliate players available for the Midget AAA club.
The First Nation, which is about 80 kilometres north of Saskatoon, learned it is losing its Midget AA team, as well.
Sadness and anger
Parenteau said he has been getting calls of support from across the hockey community.
"People are sad — sad that it had to come to this," he said. "Not only that, but angry also. Right across the province, people are hurting about this decision.
"The First Nations knew that there was a hockey team for them to go and try."
A petition has been started on the team's behalf on the website change.org, calling for the hockey association to reinstate the Midget AAA team.
As of late Friday afternoon, that petition had over 2,300 signatures — including Rae Fullerton, whose nephew, Logan Schatz, played for the Blackhawks and was among the 16 people killed in the Humboldt Broncos bus crash.
"I can guarantee if he was here, he'd be voicing his great sadness and dismay," she wrote in a post with the online petition.
Parenteau said local residents are already talking about how they will miss meeting the non-Indigenous families from other communities who came to watch their sons play for the Blackhawks.
"That's taken away from us for no reason, really. What's the reason for them to take our program?" he said.
"How would you feel, in the middle of a season, someone telling you that you're out of the league next year?"
Opportunities for Indigenous players
Bob Beatty, a former Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League coach who will be inducted into the league's hall of fame next summer, said he recruited many players out of the Blackhawks' program while he was the head coach and GM of the Humboldt Broncos and La Ronge Ice Wolves.
"The history speaks for itself," Beatty said. "They had very competitive teams and developed a lot of good, quality players — [there were] a lot of First Nations kids that benefited from that program."
He said a lot of players got opportunities with Beardy's to "get their feet wet" in competitive, elite hockey.
"Some of them come in a little bit raw, but with a lot of potential," he said. "And I think some of them may not have got an opportunity elsewhere.
"I feel for them. It's sad to see the end of it."
Longtime Blackhawks coach Dale Grayston said Craig McCallum, a member of northern Saskatchewan's Canoe Lake Cree Nation, is an example of a player who flourished after he arrived in Beardy's.
Grayston said McCallum was going to quit hockey in 2006 after playing his first two Midget seasons elsewhere.
McCallum was convinced to try Beardy's, and ended up leading the league in points the following season.
"There's a young guy that was going to quit hockey and then becomes the MVP of the Saskatchewan Midget AAA Hockey League," Grayston said. "So I think that's a shining example of [a player] feeling comfortable in a program like ours."
Grayston also has fond memories of the Blackhawks' league championship and western regional title on their way to an appearance in the 2001 Air Canada Cup, now called the Telus Cup.
He said the roster included two "gifted" local products, Riley Gardypie and Brent Gardipy, who really helped the team's fortunes that season.
"That was special that we could win the league championship with players right from the community," he said.
Since Tuesday's announcement, the Blackhawks have learned they've qualified to play in the Mac's Midget AAA World Invitational Tournament in Calgary next month.
Grayston said they are going to approach the rest of the season the way they have approached every season.
"Making sure that the 20 players we have are going to develop as players and people, and just keep trying to do that for this year and see where it all leads," he said.