Fans of the Northern Hockey Challenge (NHC) will get an unexpected chance to catch a scaled-down version of the tournament early next year, with two weekends of games planned between Hay River and Yellowknife teams.
“We knew we wanted to bring NHC back to Hay River,” said Greg Rowe, the force behind the tournament. “It’s certainly been well-received by the community. I’ve had people coming up to me and asking when it was going to happen again, players wanting to play, and some sponsors saying they would be interested in helping out.”
The two weekends, Jan. 17-19 in Hay River and Feb. 7-9 in Yellowknife, will each feature three games.
Rowe said the idea is to keep the friendly rivalry going from last year, as well as create an opportunity for adult hockey players to compete at a higher level than they might otherwise.
“We talked to Yellowknife. There was some back and forth about the dates, but they were really interested right from the beginning,” said Rowe.
The organizer said there was a decent turnout for the NHC team’s first practice on Dec. 9 and that he looked forward to seeing some of the newer players come up through the ranks, as well.
“There’s been a bit of a changeover. Some of the guys have moved away, and there are some spots to fill,” he said, adding that practices would be open to midget players – although they could not play in the series – to get them used to a higher level of competition, if they are interested.
Primary sponsor First Air previously announced it could not again support the full Northern Hockey Challenge that toured the North last year, but will help with flights between Yellowknife and Hay River for the shortened version.
Rowe said he hopes the tournament can become a biannual event, like the Arctic Winter Games in which adult men’s hockey was once included.
“We want to make sure there’s some long-term stability in this,” he said. “It’s a huge commitment from the players, the organizers, the volunteers and the sponsors, and we want to make sure it’s worth their while.”
There is a change in the atmosphere at rec hockey games already, according to Stephane Millette, an executive on rec hockey’s board of directors, as well as a player in the league and last year’s NHC.
“You should have seen the emails going around when we first got word of this,” Millette told The Hub. “Everybody is pumped.”
The rec hockey league suggested adopting a new structure for the season after the holidays – one that would allow for more flexibility and hopefully prevent the frustration of cancelled games – partially as a result of having lost players to NHC games and practices last year.
The shortened version of the tournament in 2014, however, should strike a perfect balance.
“There will be guys who absolutely want those regular games to keep in shape for the NHC weekends,” said Millette. “You can already see more guys coming out, guys skating harder. The intensity is up. We’re hoping the momentum keeps up.”
— Sara Ladik