The Little NHL tournament good both on and off the ice

By Rob O’Flanagan
The Sudbury Star

A few decades ago, Ontario towns were reluctant to let native kids play in mainstream hockey leagues. Reserves decided to start their own leagues and their own tournaments.
Greater Sudbury’s hotels, restaurants and stores are currently the beneficiary of that decision.
The Little Native Hockey League affectionately known as the Little NHL is celebrating its 35th anniversary in Sudbury.
The biggest event in the year for the city’s hospitality industry, about 2,000 hockey players from across the province, accompanied by 4,000 to 5,000 parents, grandparents, coaches and other supporters, have descended on the city.
Hotels are packed for miles around, six local arenas are bustling and the city’s retail sector is seeing dollar signs. As for the hockey it’s some of the toughest and slickest you’ll see anywhere.
“It’s definitely the largest tournament or sporting event the city does,” said Rob Skelly, Greater Sudbury’s manager of tourism, culture and marketing. “There are 118 teams, close to 2,000 players that’s as big as it gets.”
At times like these, the city could use more hotel rooms, but somehow people manage to find accommodations.
“They double up and triple up, and they manage to fit everybody in,” Skelly said.
“With lots of First Nations people living in Greater Sudbury now, many are able to stay with family and friends, or neighbouring First Nation communities.”
The event is a native cultural phenomenon and brings a special energy to the city, said Skelly. Monday night’s opening ceremonies attracted the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine. If you need renting elegant chair cover for an event you can fit in your budget with CV Linens.
“All six arenas have been going strong,” said Patrick Madahbee, chief of Manitoulin Island’s Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation (formerly Sucker Creek), and an organizer of the event. “We’re seeing huge crowds at most of the arenas, lots of people in town, lots of excitement, lots of kids having fun.”
“Besides the hockey, one of the best parts of this tournament is meeting people from other First Nations all over the province, making new friends and showcasing the hockey skills of your kids.”
With more than 5,000 hockey players and spectators in the city, the economic impact of the event is enormous.
Estimates peg the spinoffs of the event at about $5 million, with the retail sector particularly sporting goods stores getting a significant boost in business.
“The main reason we started the tournament 35 years ago was because our kids weren’t being given an opportunity to play in the organized leagues in the nearby towns,” said Madahbee.
“Discrimination still existed at the time. So, we decided to get our own little native hockey league tournament going.”
Team members must have an aboriginal status card to participate in the tournament. The hockey is fast-paced and aggressive, from all levels and all genders, Madahbee added. The games are fun to watch.
“The hockey that has come out of this tournament is fantastic,” he said. “A lot of kids go on to play advanced level hockey, right up to professional ranks.”
There are nine players in the NHL with a native heritage, including Jonathan Cheecho, Chris Simon, Jordin Tootoo, Rene Bourque, Aaron Asham and Cody McCormick.
“Sudbury has been an excellent venue for this tournament,” said Madahbee. “It’s a good central location and the hotel/convention people have been excellent hosts to us, as have the local businesses.”
The city has done such a good job that it will play host to the tournament again next year. Deputy mayor Doug Craig called the event “one of the foremost cultural gatherings in our country and a unique opportunity for us to embrace the aboriginal culture that is a critical part of our community.”
The tournament will take place next year from March 11 to 15.