Locked-out NHL players traveling through the Northwest Territories and Yukon provided minor hockey player Matthew Skinner with the story of a lifetime last week – scoring on a professional goalie.
The 17 year-old Inuvik resident, along with other members of his midget team, played the second line during a charity game on Nov. 20 at the Roy “Sugloo” Ipana Memorial Arena. Ottawa Senators goalie Craig Anderson and Dartmouth College goalie Jody O’Neill stayed on the ice the entire game, and that’s when Skinner got his chance.
“I took a snap shot and saw it go in and I got really excited,” Skinner said after the game, dressed in a suit and still pumped about the goal. “After I was standing at the face-off, my legs were shaking and I couldn’t believe that happened.”
Skinner grabbed the puck he scored with and plans to keep it for a while.
“I wanted to keep my first goal on an NHL goalie,” Skinner said. “It’ll be so awesome to tell my friends and family about in the future.”
John Chabot, an ex-NHLer, organized the hockey tour as a fundraiser for both his charity First Assist and Inuvik Minor Hockey. The charity provides funding for programs benefitting First Nations youth in fly-in communities.
Planning started three weeks ago when he sent out a quick email and received extremely positive responses from players looking for a different type of charity trip. The athletes making the trek north included Nunavut player and Northern-favourite Jordin Tootoo of the Detroit Red Wings, seven Ottawa Senators and two Winnipeg Jets.
The tour also included stops in Yellowknife, Deline and Whitehorse, Yukon. In Deline, the entire community came out to see the players.
“Everyone showed up at the airport and drove the guys around,” Chabot said. “It’s been great to give the players a real sense of the communities up here.”
Inuvik welcomed the players in fine form with a community tour, shopping at the traditional crafts store of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation and taking in a feast complete with Northern games, the Inuvik Drummers and Dancers and traditional foods such as dry meat, muktuk and Arctic char. All players participated in a laughing game and an invitational dance before the game started.
“It’s good to get out here and see some action,” Senators goalie Anderson said. “Being here sure is something, and it’s giving us guys something to talk about for years. The off-ice experience, the culture, meeting the people; we want to see as much of the community as possible.”
It will be an event talked about for years among the 400 spectators who packed the arena, too. While Inuvik has seen its share of athletes visiting, it’s rare to see current players in the community, let alone competing against one another.
“It’s something that we’re probably never going to get again,” said Conrad Baetz, an Inuvik resident and hockey enthusiast. “All the kids that participated, they’ll be able to watch Detroit and Ottawa and Winnipeg and say ‘I played with them.’ It’s great for the community and great for minor hockey kids.”
The best part for many in the community was the participation of every minor hockey player in Inuvik. The midgets provided relief for the players, while younger skaters entered with the players, played in between periods and took shots on the goalies after the game.
“We included every age group of minor hockey and had them participate in one way,” said Les Skinner, president of NWT Hockey. “It’s something that’s really positive for the community itself. To see all the people and kids out there, they needed it, with what happened with Paulou. It was really good.”
Paulou Ittunga, an 18 year-old athlete in Inuvik, died last month after being run over by a car in the middle of the night. The entire community mourned his death, but the hockey game brought some joy back.
The arena and entire town were filled with a sense of awe and, once the game started, fans played their part well, looking for fist bumps from players and making whatever they had handy available for a signature: jackets, hats, sticks, sweaters – even pieces of skin.
The energy was contagious as people packed into the benches, climbed ladders to reach VIP seating and cheered for all 15 goals – it didn’t matter who scored in this game; just watching it provided enough entertainment.
Home of hockey shows NHLers Northern hospitality
The NWT community of Deline hit the pause button for 24 hours last week, setting aside regular life to welcome 11 NHL players, including Northerner Jordin Tootoo, who stopped there as part of their Northern tour.
Nearly everyone in town piled into cars and trucks and drove to the airport to wait for a Buffalo Air plane to touch down on Monday morning, Nov. 19. The band office was closed by order of the chief, along with all other government offices, and classes were canceled at school.
“The whole community went up to the airport to meet them,” said volunteer organizer and Deline resident Patricia Modeste. “Everyone was excited for them to land.”
While stops in Yellowknife and Inuvik focused on charity hockey games, the players’ experience in Deline was unique, anchored in traditional culture. There was a community feast featuring fish, caribou and moose, and the players were taken on a tour of the town including the house of the famed prophet Ayah, the hamlet’s spiritual centre.
“They went to all these places and we did all this oral history with them until mid-afternoon,” Modeste said, adding she enjoyed watching the players get comfortable with local residents.
Some of the players were taken muskox hunting, while others stayed closer to town to check hooks for fish.
The guests included Ottawa Senators Chris Neil, Zack Smith, Peter Regin and Craig Anderson; Columbus Blue Jackets Marc Methot, Chris Phillips and Grant Clitsome; Minnesota Wild’s Guillaume Latendresse; Detroit Red Wings’ Jordin Tootoo and the Winnipeg Jets’ Jim Slater. All joined in activities after the feast.
One player in particular enjoyed the hand games and encouraged the others to try, Modeste said.
“Of course, Jordin Tootoo was loving all of this,” she said. “He was the first one to sit on the floor for the hand games with the guys and little by little they started joining in.”
For Modeste, one of the best results is Deline being able to add a new story to its hockey mythology. The hamlet argues nearby Little Lake hosted the first hockey game when Sir John Franklin and his crew wintered there in 1825. Although the claim is hotly contested, the thrill of hosting current NHL players on the same ice is one residents of Deline will treasure for a long time, she said.