The novice level hockey tournament got underway with more excitement than usual Feb. 28, with players taking to the ice for an opening ceremony complete with a smoke machine and a ceremonial puck drop.
“We just wanted to give them the feeling of a real tournament,” said organizer Michelle Staszuk. “We wanted to make it exciting for them and really try to bring out a crowd to cheer them on.”
The stands were full for the first exhibition game between the two Hay River teams on the Friday night and far from empty for the rest of the weekend. Teams carried their banners and every player was presented to the spectators one by one. Joining two Hay River teams were four teams from Yellowknife, one from Fort Smith and one from Rainbow Lake, Alta.
“The kids were great,” said Staszuk, adding that visiting teams hadn’t been aware of the planned fanfare until they got to the arena Feb. 28.
“It doesn’t seem tough, but to get them all out there at the same time and choreographed after seven-hour car rides was pretty impressive.”
Staszuk said the opening ceremony also served as a venue for the kids to meet each other in a way they rarely see. While most of the players have likely met several times on the ice by this point in the season, they don’t really get to speak to members of other teams usually. Staszuk said she could see them chatting while they waited their turn to wave their stick at the crowd.
“They’ve all just got such a great attitude,” she said, adding that chances were the seven- and eight-year-olds on the ice would probably be playing either together or against each other for many years to come, and that it was important to build those relationships on a foundation of mutual respect in a positive atmosphere.
Kelden Hendrickson was one of the players who participated in the ceremonial puck-drop with John Hill, representing the tournament’s sponsor Super A. Hendrickson said that although he has burst through banners before, he was pretty excited to have been a part of his first such puck-drop.
“It was fun,” he said. “The best part has been playing against other teams and playing with my friends.”
Staszuk said the kids had been given invitations to hand out to adults they knew and a number of Northern Hockey Challenge players had turned out for the first evening’s game. She said they had been so impressed by the level of skill the players had, even at a young age, that some had volunteered to come back to hand out medals March 2.
“It’s just great to have them here,” said Staszuk. “The kids really look up to them and it’s great to see the community getting involved like this.”