The Northern Hockey Challenge is back.
Over the weekend, the Hay River Huskies played host to the Yellowknife Flyers for the first three games in the annual home-and-away series for the two senior rec hockey teams.
The Flyers emerged from the weekend with two wins to take the first half of the challenge.
Hay River won the opening game 8-4 on Friday but Yellowknife stormed back with a 14-3 win on Saturday and a closer 6-4 victory on Sunday.
“This was the best game of the series,” said Huskies coach Andre Chabot following Sunday’s match. “There was a lot of back and forth. The guys played hard on both sides.”
The challenge remains popular with players and fans, as evidenced by the more than 100 people who turned out to watch each game.
“It’s nice for the fans. It’s nice for the community,” said Chabot. “It’s nice for the players, too.”
The coach, who played in the series in previous years, said sometimes it looks like there’s a lot of pushing and shoving on the ice, and he admitted there are some intense moments.
“But that’s the way hockey goes,” he explained. “Off the ice, shake it off, and chat about it and laugh about it.”
This weekend, Gavin Broadhead, a Hay River native who played two years in the Western Hockey League for the Medicine Hat Tigers, laced up his skates with the Huskies.
Broadhead said it was his first time participating in the Northern Hockey Challenge, and his first competitive hockey since suffering a bad concussion two years ago.
“It feels really good to be back,” he said, noting he grew up idolizing some of the rec hockey players. “Now it’s cool to be playing with them.”
Broadhead had good things to say about the quality of play in the Northern Hockey Challenge.
“There’s tons of good players out here,” he said. “Just because some guys maybe didn’t play major junior or junior A hockey, it doesn’t mean they’re not good players. Up here, some guys don’t get the exposure. I’m sure there’s a lot of guys on this team that could easily play junior hockey.”
Broadhead, who is attending school in Medicine Hat, Alta., came up for the weekend just to participate in the challenge.
It was a great experience to play in the series in his hometown, he said. “I’m really lucky to be part of this.”
Jeff Bowden, a player with the Yellowknife Flyers, said the capital city team enjoys the challenge.
“Hay River is just a real hockey community and the guys love coming down here because we’re treated so well by the players, the community,” Bowden said. “The whole community rallies around, I’d like to say both teams, but probably mostly Hay River, and it’s just a pleasure coming down here. We have such a great weekend. Sometimes we don’t quite have the same atmosphere in Yellowknife as we do here.”
No date has yet been set for the return three games in Yellowknife but they are expected to take place in late March or early April.
This is the fourth season for the Northern Hockey Challenge, the third featuring just the Huskies and the Flyers.
It began in the 2012-2013 season with three teams in the NWT and four in Nunavut.
Last season, there were games in Hay River but the planned return games in Yellowknife didn’t happen because no ice time was available.