'We've missed it so much': Yukon Native Hockey Tournament returns after 4 years
Michelle Dawson-Beattie has waited a long time for this week, when the puck finally drops once again at Yukon Native Hockey Tournament in Whitehorse.
"We've missed it so much," said Dawson-Beattie, who typically helps organize the event every year as president of the Yukon First Nation Hockey Association.
"It seems a bit surreal that it's like, finally here and we're going to be able to see everybody again, and gather."
The event had been an annual mainstay for more than four decades, drawing hundreds of people to Whitehorse from across the North every March.
Then came the pandemic. In March 2020, organizers pulled the plug on that year's event at the last minute as concerns mounted over COVID and public events were being cancelled.
Organizers made the same decision in 2021 and 2022.
Now, the tournament is back and it's as big as ever with 56 teams registered and more than 1,000 players scheduled to participate. It runs from Thursday until Sunday.
And for the first time, the tournament has a women's division, with five teams registered. At the last tournament, in 2019, there was a single women's team participating.
"It should have happened a while ago," said Dawson-Beattie, about this year's women's division.
That was one of the few upsides of the pandemic hiatus, she said — it gave organizers more time to plan and think about how to make it all work..
"We're really just trying to uphold all of the women that are coming forward to play in the tournament, you know, for this year. It's just really exciting."
There's also an added day this year, with the tournament set to begin on Thursday instead of Friday as in past years.
Dawson-Beattie says ticket prices haven't changed, though.
"We want to keep it affordable for families," she said.
'The biggest show in the Yukon'
Jeremy Harper will be among the hundred of players lacing up their skates this weekend in Whitehorse. He's competed in the tournament many times before and calls it "the native Stanley Cup."
"Everybody knows that this is the biggest show in the Yukon out of all hockey tournaments and that's why it has a big turn out."
Harper, the MLA for Mayo-Tatchun, is a member of the Selkirk First Nation and is playing in the C Division with "a bunch of young guys from Pelly Crossing."
The team's name, Huchá Hudän, means "flatland people," he said.
"That's our Fort Selkirk name when we used to live back in Fort Selkirk," Harper said.
For Harper, the tournament serves as an inspiration to young people from smaller, rural communities to stay active and get involved. Seeing the stands full of cheering spectators encourages you to perform at your highest level, he says.
"I always tell the young men from my community, you know, this is our modern day war. And now when we go into the Native Hockey Tournament, we don't go in to hurt people, but we go in to represent our elders, our citizens and our children and youth of our community," he said.
"It is a complete honour to wear the jersey and represent the Selkirk people."