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The smell of smoke is still ever-present at the Chief Young Eagle Recreation Center in Elsipogtog First Nation, a Mi’kmaq community in New Brunswick where Jason Augustin is both the fire chief and a local hockey coach.

Photography by VIKTOR PIVOVAROV/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

When the lights went out in Piestany, Albert Levi leapt from the couch and started shouting at no one in particular.

“I told you! I told you! I told you we’d beat the Russians one way or another,” he yelled, jumping around the living room. “And he came from here!”

It was Jan. 4, 1987, and Levi, chief of a New Brunswick Mi’kmaq community then known as Big Cove, was watching Canada play the Soviet Union in the world junior hockey championship. On the ice for Canada was a young Mi’kmaq player named Everett Sanipass, the pride of Big Cove.

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It felt like everyone was gathered around TVs back on the reserve, a community of about 2,500 people where pickup trucks still give way to kids playing ball hockey in the road and Friday nights are always reserved for getting together at the rink. When the game in Piestany, Czechoslovakia, descended into its now-infamous brawl, Sanipass was right in the thick of it. As officials inside the arena shut off the lights in an effort to stop the fighting, Levi was on his feet back in Big Cove, celebrating. His dream had come true.

“I thought he was going to have a heart attack that day,” recalled his daughter, Ruth Levi, a band councillor with Elsipogtog First Nation, laughing at the memory. “Nothing could take the smile off his face. He was so proud.”

Band councillor Ruth Levi remembers her father's pride at seeing someone from Elsipogtog succeed on a global hockey stage.

A decade earlier, the chief had a vision for a community hockey rink that would produce players who could compete with the best in the world. He saw how hockey could give the community’s children an opportunity for a better life.

The families of Big Cove built their indoor arena, the only one on any First Nation in New Brunswick, without a penny of government funding. They did it with nickels and dimes and dozens of community dances, bake sales and raffles. When it opened in 1979, in the middle of the Cold War, Chief Levi gave a speech about how Big Cove would now develop players who could beat the Russians at Canada’s game. Sanipass, who went on to an NHL career with the Chicago Blackhawks and Quebec Nordiques, was just the first. Dozens of other players have graduated from Elsipogtog’s chilly indoor rink to junior, college and professional hockey careers.

“Hockey is life here,” said Jaime Carpenter, who learned to skate at the rink and earned an NCAA hockey scholarship to play for the women’s hockey team at Plymouth State University in New Hampshire. “It’s just the backbone of our community. Even if you don’t play the sport, you love it, because your friends play it and your family plays it.”

The arena has been the heart of Elsipogtog for more than 40 years. Late one night last September, an arsonist took it all away. Someone lit a fire that burned so hot it shattered the glass around the rink and warped the steel beams that held up the walls. Seven months later, you can still smell the smoke when you step inside the building. It remains coated in black soot. (Two youths were arrested for the fire.)

Levi, chief of Elsipogtog for 26 years, died a month later, at 88. He was heartbroken. The arena – the Chief Young Eagle Recreation Centre – was named after the stage name he used in the Atlantic Grand Prix Wrestling circuit in the 1960s. As someone who left school in Grade 3 after the death of his mother, its construction was one of his finest accomplishments.

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At top, the Richibucto River winds past Elsipogtog, whose name means 'river of fire.' The First Nation is home to about 2,500 people. At bottom right, a Mi’kmaq-language stop sign stands at the community's Levi Street.

In many small Canadian communities, the loss of the local arena would be devastating. In Elsipogtog, it was like a death in the family.

Here, hockey sticks can be found outside most homes, stacked near bungalows surrounded by children’s bicycles and lobster traps.

Hockey is more than just a game in a community where the median household income is still less than half that of New Brunswickers who live off the reserve.

“It’s all we have,” said Ruth Levi, who speaks to visitors in English but talks to wandering dogs in Mi’kmaq. “It gives us something we can be proud of.”

Elders here point out the first hockey sticks in the world were invented by the Mi’kmaq people. Up until the 1930s, in Mi’kmaq communities in Nova Scotia, from Shubenacadie to Indian Brook to Millbrook, the manufacturing of hockey sticks was an important occupation.

“It’s a Mi’kmaq game,” said Jason Augustine, Elsipogtog’s fire chief and a local hockey coach. “Kids here, they grow up hearing these stories. They know all the players who made it from here, and they want to be like them.”

Young people at Elsipogtog School play ball hockey at the gym.

Hockey provides more than just recreation for the community’s children. For some kids, it’s also a way out. In 1992, seven youth in Elsipogtog died by suicide and 75 other attempts were recorded. Ruth Levi, who was a social worker at the time, said she grew tired of covering up bodies until the paramedics could arrive.

Today, kids here know if they’re good enough, the sport can open doors to postsecondary education and a world well beyond their little riverside community in eastern New Brunswick. That’s why individual players’ successes are celebrated by all of Elsipogtog. When a promising young player gets a chance to play junior hockey somewhere in Canada, or makes the roster at a U.S. college, it’s common for the community to fundraise to help the player adjust to life off-reserve.

“As First Nations people, it’s very important to support our youth when they go outside the community. It can be hard for them, being labelled, dealing with racism,” Augustine said. “Our youth are used to being near their family, that’s the biggest thing in our community. So we show them support, and show them they can make it.”

With no place to play indoor hockey this year, it was a long winter in Elsipogtog. Some teams played in neighbouring rinks in Richibucto, N.B., while others didn’t play at all.

The rink, with its capacity for about 300 spectators, doubles as a community gathering place on Friday nights, with elders and teenagers alike crowded around the ice. It’s used year-round, from learn-to-skate programs to senior hockey. Almost everyone of a certain age in Elsipogtog who knows how to skate learned here. When the fire hit, that was all gone.

“It was boring without the arena,” said Kaleb Joseph, 12, dodging orange plastic missiles during a game of ball hockey inside the local school. “In hockey season, it’s like our chill spot. I’d go whenever it was open.”

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Kaleb Joseph, 12, says he'd normally go to the rink whenever it was open. 'It was boring without the arena.'

In early January, Carpenter and several other young women seized on an idea to help rebuild their beloved arena. They organized a bid for Kraft Hockeyville, a national contest that comes with $250,000 in arena upgrades as a top prize, and began spreading the word on social media, urging people to vote.

Elsipogtog’s story captured support across the country. But the week before the community won the contest, Elsipogtog was staggered by another tragedy. A boat from the reserve capsized while fishing for crab off the coast of Cape Breton, claiming the life of crew member Seth Monahan and the vessel’s captain, Craig Sock.

Sock, who everyone here knew as Jumbo, drowned trying to save his shipmates in the frigid waters. He was also a band councillor and a well-known hockey player and coach. His boat, the Tyhawk, was named after his son Tyrone, a former junior hockey player, and the Hawks, Elsipogtog’s senior hockey team.

His body has still has not been recovered. As volunteer crews searched the water, people back home were determined to win the contest and repair the rink in his memory. Votes poured in from across the country, and Elsipogtog beat out three other finalists.

“Although it was a really sad time, everyone just focused on doing this for Jumbo. We won it for him, and I know he would be proud,” Carpenter said.

In Elsipogtog, where hockey has always seemed to be more than just sport, there’s finally hope that the arena will be open next winter. The $250,000 and the insurance money will help rebuild the arena, but there will need to be fundraisers. But when the arena is back, Levi, as do a lot of people in the community, says it’ll be like a member of the family coming home again.

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“We built it from our hearts the first time,” she said. “And we’re going to rebuild it the same way.”

The fire-damaged arena awaits its reconstruction.

Editor’s note: A previously published version of this story mistakenly identified Jaime Carpenter with the wrong surname. This version has been corrected.

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