How Lil Bands grew from a “ragtag” start to a major First Nations hockey tournament

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The Lil Bands hockey tournament 20 years ago would not have been recognizable to anyone entering the Dryden and Eagle Lake arenas this week.

Thirty-eight First Nations youth hockey teams from across Northern Ontario — and one from Manitoba — are taking part in this year’s tournament in Dryden, which begins Tuesday and continues until Sunday.

And of course the players had a lot of fun. Several told CBC News they enjoy the games themselves, along with the off-the-ice events Lil Bands offer.

Beth Gagnon played for her home community of Deer Lake. Outside of bands, she goes to high school in Thunder Bay and plays for the Thunder Bay Queens.

“It means a lot to me and my family to represent,” she said. “It’s fun to play here.”

Gagnon pulls double duty in Lil Bands, stepping on the ice for both the Deer Lake boys and girls team.

“The guys… it’s about a lot more speed and you have to think faster,” she said. “But it’s also fun playing for the girls because I have a lot more time.”

But twenty years ago, when the tournament started, things were very different.

A tournament with a mission

“We started with about four teams, a different mix, age differences, and so on,” said Ziggy Beardy, one of the organizers of the first tournament, which was held in Sioux Lookout for a day and a half in 2001.

“We just decided to test the waters and see if there was any interest or need to host a youth tournament at Sioux Lookout,” he said. “After it was over, the young people said, ‘This? Are there more?’

“So that’s how it all started.”

CLOCK | Ziggy Beardy explains how it all started:

How Lil Bands grew into the Stanley Cup for First Nations youth

Ziggy Beardy helped start the Lil Bands ice hockey tournament 20 years ago. Since then, it has grown from a four-team “rag tag” tournament to become the premier league for young First Nations hockey players in Northwestern Ontario. He explains how this happened and the mission to offer young people a positive space.

Stephen Fiddler, who also helped organize the first Lil Bands league, said that he often travels to northern communities for his work and found that there was not much sport for children.

“I had dinner with my wife, my dead wife,” said Fiddler. “I started talking to her about wanting to start a hockey tournament for kids, and she said, ‘You should start one’.”

Three years later, Fiddler booked Ice Age at the Sioux Lookout.

“It’s just something I want to do for the kids,” Fiddler said. “I don’t know what to say… I just want to do it.”

Fiddler said the high suicide rate among young people in northern communities is one of the reasons why the tournament is so important and he wants to help make a difference – even if it’s just a small part.

“Congregations bring their kids and come play hockey,” Fiddler said. “This is probably the only tournament they go to.”

“This is about fun, it’s about community”

Kiiwetinoong MPP Sol Mamakwa said the Lil Bands tournament and hockey itself are important to young people from the northern communities.

“It is preventing suicide,” said Mamakwa. “It gives them something to look forward to. Hockey can be a lifesaver for some kids. That’s why it’s so important to be able to support these youth tournaments and to support young people.”

Many of Northwestern Ontario’s First Nations don’t have access to artificial snow, and with a warmer-than-normal start to January, some teams may have some rust on them, he said. But after a few games everything starts to click and everyone is having fun.

“That’s the point,” said Mamakwa. “This is about fun, it’s about community, it’s about competition and getting to know others.”

CLOCK | How hockey can be a lifeline for children in remote communities:

Why Lil Bands is more than just a hockey league

Hundreds of young First Nations hockey players and their families from Northwestern Ontario gathered in Dryden for the Lil Bands Hockey Tournament. Sol Mamakwa explains the importance of the league and why hockey is a ‘lifeline’ for some as their communities battle the ongoing suicide crisis.

Things have certainly grown since those early days: Dryden, home of the 2023 Lil Bands Tournament, will see 38 teams from 12 communities compete in seven age divisions.

It was quite an undertaking for Deer Lake to organize everything leading up to Lil Bands: the community has a team that plays in each of these seven divisions.

“We all work together when we start planning the trip and the hotel arrangements and everything, the drivers, the escorts,” said Denise Aysanabee, manager of Deer Lake’s junior and senior girls teams. “We all have our responsibilities, but we come together when it comes to travel.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Aysanabee said the community would raise funds to help pay for travel and hotel rooms. This year, however, the community was dependent on donations and the teams were flown directly from Deer Lake to Dryden.

For Sharon Quequish of North Caribou Lake, the Lil Bands championship is a family affair.

Quequish is one of the organizers for North Caribou, and ensures that teams compete in lil bands. And this year her granddaughter Kaila Waswa is among the players representing the Dryden community.

A young fan gets a taco-in-a-bag from a concession worker between games at the Lil Bands First Nations Hockey Tournament. (Marc Doucette/CBC)

Quequish and the other organizers were very busy this year, having only two weeks to prepare for the trip to Lil Bands.

“I went to the radio station first,” Quequish said. “I said we only have so much time. I am ready to coordinate and organize it but I will need a lot of help.

“And the parents want to… register their children right away because we didn’t have a lot of money to think about.”

The Benefits of Hosting Bands

Lil Bands had gone on a three-year hiatus before 2023 because of the pandemic, but the work of bringing the North Caribou teams to Dryden was worth it, Quequish said.

“I like it when the children are so happy. I love to see them smile.”

The tournament itself is also important to the host community. Players, families, coaches, organizers and chaperones are staying in Dryden this year and this is having a positive impact on the economy.

“Tourism is huge in the summer months,” said Steve Belanger, manager of municipal services in Dryden. “We live in a special part of the world here where the fishing and hunting are probably the best and we have a lot of traffic.

“But as we get into the winter months, we see traffic slow down,” he said. “These tournaments carry them through the long, cold winter months, and keep the motels full, the stores full, the restaurants thriving.”


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