This town is no doubt a hockey town, but for the most part, tournaments and activities are organized for minor hockey players.
The Northern Hockey Challenge (NHC), however, is the exception to the rule. Adult players get to test their skills against the top competitors from all over the North and the games draw crowds of spectators, keen to witness the latest instalment in various regional rivalries. Teams will meet here Jan. 17 to 19 and then again in Yellowknife Feb. 7 through 9. Although this year’s tournament is much smaller than last – including only Yellowknife and Hay River – players in the hub are no less excited.
“The NHC for a lot of the local guys is the highlight of our year,” said player Curtis Rowe. “We practice a lot, and it’s something we take seriously.”
Rowe noted that the prospective team members for Hay River had done bag skating (an intensive form of training) at a recent practice and none of them could remember when they had last worked so hard.
While there is a lot of support for and attention paid to Hay River’s minor hockey program, there is a drop-off in participation after players age out of Midget. The Hay River Recreation League runs games throughout the winter but the NHC really provides a venue and an opportunity for a higher calibre of play, as well as an outlet for deeply-embedded rivalries.
“It’s a little higher class hockey than you usually get to play at this age,” said Shaun Demarcke, who made the team last year but could only play one game as a result of an injury. He hopes to play more this year and be part of a show for both here and Yellowknife.
“It’s good competitive hockey for the fans of Hay River,” he said. “The NHC is really the equivalent of the Arctic Winter Games, but for adults. It also helps keep the kids involved and looking forward to playing.”
Demarcke’s son, Joel Demarcke, plays for the Midget Huskies team and was picked for the territorial team going to the Arctic Winter Games.
“My son is 16,” said Demarcke. “I know he’s looking forward to playing in the NHC someday. There isn’t much for young players after midget besides rec hockey.”
It only makes sense that the NHC series is an exciting time for the players themselves, as well as those who will soon follow them up through the ranks, but the tournament also draws out much younger children.
“It was really cool to see the little kids there last year,” said Rowe. “We could remember being kids ourselves and watching the adults play and thinking they were they best players ever. Maybe they weren’t really, but it was exciting just the same.”