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Outdoor game embraced by community

Winter Classic a hockey revival for Fort St. James, Nak’azdli Whu’ten First Nation

It's tough being a hockey goalie, especially when the sun is in your eyes just as the other team lets go a shot.

Devin Chapman found himself blinded by the light late in the second period in the Winter Classic Sunday in Fort St. James. Chapman was protecting a 2-0 lead his Cariboo Cougars had on the Vancouver Northeast Chiefs, playing on the shoebox-sized outdoor rink at Ernie Sam Memorial Arena.

With the bright beams of a winter sun shining at angles just low enough to avoid being blocked by the open-air rink's roof, Chapman froze on his skates as a high floater Christian Lowe directed at the net from close range ticked off the skate of Cougars defenceman Matthew Magrath and dropped in over the goalie's shoulder. Chapman didn't move until the puck was already in the net.

"I lost it in the sun - it was pretty hard the first two periods, I was basically squinting the whole time," said Chapman, a 17-year-old from Williams Lake. "There were a couple saves I didn't even see the puck. I just got lucky and it hit me."

Officially, the game went into the books as a 2-2 tie. Unofficially, the Cougars came away with a 3-2 shootout victory to earn bragging rights for the year.

The game was the focal point for the teams from Vancouver and Prince George and a crowd of about 700 spectators at Fort St. James, a town of about 1,600 located on the western shores of Stuart Lake, 160 kilometres northwest of Prince George.

But it was much more than a game. It was a hockey revival likely to have lasting cultural effects.

Minor hockey in Fort St. James was in the doldrums. The indoor arena, Fort Forum, where the Cougars and Chiefs played to a 4-4 tie Saturday night, was shut down until January. Teams were forced to travel 61 km south to Vanderhoof for practices until safety improvements mandated by the province in the wake of the Oct. 17, 2017 ammonia leak that killed three workers in Fernie Memorial Arena were approved. The Winter Classic spurred the town and the band council of Nak'azdli Whu'ten First Nation into action. The Ernie Sam rink built 10 years ago had fallen into disrepair. The boards were starting to splinter and ice quality depended on volunteers with hoses - no Zamboni floods. Knowing what was coming in January, the Nak'azdli Band Council under chief Alex McKinnon approved $50,000 in rink improvements to install glass and netting, anchor the boards and put up a score clock. The town supplied its rink maintenance staff to work with Cougars general manager Trevor Sprague and his volunteer crew of eight who gave up days of their time in the week before the game to get the ice at both rinks ready for the games.

Bill Cash, who billets Cougars forward Andrew Hammond, drove out from Prince George a few days before the game to help with the rink floods at both arenas every few hours in the lead-up to the weekend games.

"I was here three days doing the ice and painting the lines - lot of effort and time went into this because they had no ice," said Cash. "Trevor's been here since Monday and if it wasn't for him I don't know if they'd even have ice in the town."

The Cougars arranged to borrow rows of portable metal stands from the City of Prince George and Sprague and his crew worked hours setting them up to give spectators a good view of the rink. What they didn't count on was the weather being so warm. After dipping down to just minus 3 C overnight, the mercury climbed to almost 4 C on game day and a steady stream of water was dripping off the roof right onto the seats. Dressed in his suit and no overcoat, Sprague made a valiant effort to turn off the taps, going up in a cherry-picker with a broom to try to sweep off the snow but it continued to melt, forcing spectators to sit on the high rows of the stands to stay dry.

"The whole community came together - the donations and time they put in to make it happen, that's what it takes, a family," said Shawn Gendron, a former Prince George Cougar whose son Jacob plays defence for Cariboo. "Good on Fort St. James and the band for putting in their money because it wouldn't have happened without them. They'll have this rink forever."

Dawn Morris had a front-row seat which gave her a unique view of Mount Pope in the distance.

"It's pretty cool, you can see the mountains in the background and watch hockey at the same time," said Morris. "We need to have more family things like this and to bring hockey back. This looks like an NHL rink."

Shayne Firshner and Matty Saharchuk had the most comfortable seat at the rink. They strapped a leather couch to the top of their truck and parked in a corner. All they needed was the permission of the chief, which they did get.

Janie Jarvis from Manson Creek and her sister Gloria Alexander from Germansen Landing got there early to claim their high-and-dry perch. "I'm expecting to win the 50-50," laughed Alexander.

They made the three-hour trek south to watch Jarvis's 11-year-old granddaughter Kristen Teegee play for the Fort St. James Stars in a peewee girls game against Burns Lake the previous night in Fort Forum, which just opened for the season last week.

"They didn't have icetime all winter and when they practiced they just ran around at the rink," said Jarvis. "Now they can practice here at the (Ernie Sam) arena. Everyone's happy."

The legacy of the Winter Classic goes well beyond the rink improvements that spruced up Ernie Sam Memorial Arena. The outdoor rink sits on the dividing line between the Nak'azdli Whu'ten reserve and the town itself and RCMP Const. Justin Balfour, the community liaison officer for Fort St. James, predicts the rink will become a gathering place that will help unite white and native cultures. Balfour says other RCMP officers in the area plan to form a hockey team to play against kids around town on the outdoor ice, which will be maintained by indoor arena staff.

"The work they've done to the outdoor rink is a huge improvement to the community, especially for the youth of Nak'azdli, and it's nice to see the community come together as a whole and enjoy this event," said Balfour. "Especially for the youth, it's about dropping those cultural boundaries. We all have the issues we're born with, but to be able to come together and enjoy the sport and watch some upper-tier hockey, it's a good thing for the community. They put all the work in this year and hopefully going forward we'll be able to do this year after year. It's all about bringing down borders."

Nolan Sagalon, a youth counselor for the Nak'azdli Health Centre, used to play on the Ernie Sam ice but he's been seeing fewer kids playing the game, which reflects the declines in minor hockey registration.

"Hockey has been dying in this town for the past few years and we struggled to have midget teams and I'm really pumped that this will get more kids more into hockey," said Sagalon. "I have all these kids who stopped playing this year and now they're like, 'I should start playing, it could lead somewhere.'

"This is a small community and the youth fall into drugs and alcohol. They need activities to keep their minds busy and this is perfect for the community, it brought everyone together. You have people from out of town because they're proud of what the town is doing, for once. This game is going to start a lot of good things."

Donny John brought his two-year-old son Benjamin to the game and it was a new experience for both of them.

"I've never seen hockey before, this is the first time and it's pretty good," said John. "He's enjoying it. This is bringing everybody together."

Barry Duncan, who lives on the Binche Keyoh reserve northwest of the town, was seeing friends he hadn't seen for a long time.

"To see this calibre out here in the north is just amazing," said Duncan. "This is going to build the town, it brings the whites and the Indians together and combines people. Everybody loves hockey. We're so close here, I grew up with the white kids and we're like brothers and sisters. I'm just happy. It's beautiful."

The Ernie Sam rink is 31 feet shorter and 16 feet narrower than an NHL-sized rink and as expected in a clash of two fast-skating, hard-checking teams, collisions were frequent and sometimes violent, with bodies flying into the boards, sometimes head over heels.

Cougars forward Lane Goodwin, 17, is from Fort St. James and like his teammates he had Jan. 19 circled on his calendar ever since the B.C. Hockey Major Midget League schedule was released last August.

"It was pretty fun, there were a lot of people I knew who came out and watched and it would have been a bit better if we got two wins this weekend but it was a great experience playing outside for the first time," said Goodwin. "The barn out there is really good, the ice was a little soft but it was still fun to play on. It was sunny and not too cold. Winning the shootout was the highlight."

The game was sanctioned by Hockey Canada and B.C. Hockey and was the country's first modern-era major midget game played outdoors. In the lead-up to the weekend games, the players visited the two elementary schools and worked with minor hockey teams to offer tips on how to play the game.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime event for these players to play," said Sean Orr, B.C. Hockey senior manager of leagues and events. "If you think of the mystique of pond hockey as a child growing up there's nothing better than an outdoor game. It's part of the Canadian culture and the work that's gone into this is fantastic.

"To have this outdoor facility is a fantastic legacy that will be here for future years. The event is one thing, it's everything else that goes into building it, all the auxiliary events that happen is what makes it a special thing."

Skate blades turned the ice to snow shavings and both goalies made sure to build up their little snow fortresses around the posts whenever they had the chance. Chapman was under siege early in the game by the Chiefs, who came out sporting balaclavas under their helmets. With both teams generating quality scoring chances he had to be sharp to keep it scoreless heading into the second period, coming up with three stellar saves in the opening frame to rob Ryan Tattle.

Connor Fleming opened the scoring for the Cougars 7:15 into the second period with his 22nd of the season, batting down a rebound with what was close to being a high stick. Brennan Bott made it a 2-0 count 54 seconds later, scoring an unassisted goal when he picked the corner behind goalie Michael Harroch with a sharp-angle shot while standing near the goal line.

After Lowe made it close just before the second intermission, the tying goal for the Chiefs came 12:58 into the third period. Samuel Schofield, who drew an assist on Lowe's goal, let go a hard low snapshot and Chapman didn't see that one coming either with a pileup of bodies blocking his view.

The mid-period shovelings kept the ice more conducive to sliding pucks but eventually a rut developed behind the Cougar net in the third period that went right down to the concrete. Local ice experts Tony Panchenko and Ryan Legebokoff had to come out several times during game stoppages to patch the hole with snow and water - the price that had to be paid for winter not dealing out a -30 C January chill.

When the third period ended many of the fans were hoping to see some overtime but that only happens in the playoffs in the major midget league. Considering that big rut in the ice it was probably better for everybody on the ice that it went to shootout to decide bragging rights.

Cougars winger Alex Ochitwa was the only successful shootout shooter, scoring in the fourth round with a shot in under Harroch's blocker. Chapman ended it in the fifth round when he stuck out his glove to deny Chiefs captain Dante Ballarin.

"It was nice to get a win - too bad it didn't count for us. It's unfortunate, we were hoping to get overtime there," said Ochitwa. "We had momentum and we were thinking we could have won that one."

Ochitwa grew up in Prince George and has played lots of shinny games on outdoor ice but never a meaningful game like Sunday's and never on a rink that's just 169 feet long and 68 feet wide. The third-place Cougars (16-5-5-0) and second-place Chiefs (17-5-4-2) are neck-and-neck in the BCHMML standings. Counting the tie the night before in the Fort Forum, the Chiefs remain three points ahead of Cariboo.

"It was special to play in this game, it was pretty different to have a high-level, high-compete game outside and it was a good experience," said Ochitwa. "It was tight, there wasn't a lot of room and you had to fight for every inch. Everybody was telling us to just put the puck on net because everywhere over the blueline was a scoring opportunity."

Ballarin grew up in Vancouver and had never played hockey on anything but indoor ice.

"There's a lot of fans out here and nobody's ever experienced something like this before, it's a special feeling," said Ballarin. "The plays were coming fast and you had to make decisions quicker or you give the puck up or get hit. Sometimes we weren't even thinking, just trying to get pucks out of our zone. The ice didn't help but I think we managed pretty well.

"Back home it's definitely not like this. This is a tight community so it's really cool to see this exists up here."

The game Sunday has been the talk of the league all season and it lived up to the hype. The fact Sprague and the Cougars want to make it an annual event means the nine other teams who didn't get to play in the inaugural game are going to want to be there next year. Sprague says he'll likely pick another Lower Mainland-based team.

Until they're old and gray, the Cougars and Chiefs are going to be talking about their weekend coming to a remote part of the province to show off their hockey skills in the great outdoors in a small town where they got treated like rock stars.

"It's just a great thing that we got done - we're blessed and thankful for everything that Sprague and everyone involved did to make this possible," said Chapman. "It was tough, especially with the ice conditions but it was pretty fun and I was happy to be part of it."

Chiefs goalie Harroch, 17, considered himself lucky to be one of the game's central figures.

"It was a crazy experience, one I'm sure I'll remember forever," said Harroch. "The ice got a little tough but the experience was fantastic. I'm thinking, for sure, this will be something that people look forward to and hope to be chosen to go up and play. It's kind of a surreal experience."