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It wasn’t quite planes, trains and automobiles, but the Attawapiskat Ice Hawks’ journey to Mississauga, to take part in the 49th edition of the Little Native Hockey League wasn’t too far off.

It’s more than 1,000 kilometres from the shores of James Bay to the Paramount Fine Foods Centre, where much of the four-day tournament, which ended Thursday, took place, and the southbound trip for the under-15 bantam boys team was anything but straightforward.

“Ten hours on ice roads, catch a train and catch a bus to get here over two or three days,” said acting Little NHL president Patrick Madahbee. “A phenomenal effort on their part.”

While the journey sounds reminiscent of one famously undertaken by the Dawson City Nuggets to play the Ottawa Silver Seven for the Stanley Cup more than a century ago – minus the dog sleds – the results were somewhat similar, too. Attawapiskat lost all four games it played, scored seven goals and conceded 27.

But scoreboards should always be secondary to fuelling passion for the game at the youth level. After a three-year COVID-enforced hiatus, getting the tournament back on the ice was the primary concern for the organizers, with this year’s edition put on by the Nipissing First Nation.

The Little NHL is the largest Indigenous hockey tournament in Ontario, with 184 teams and almost 3,000 players from 133 First Nations across the province, and it is considered to be one of the largest gatherings of First Nations youth in Canada.

“I think it’s more than a tournament, it’s more like a festival to be quite frank,” said Kevin Eshkawkogan, chief executive officer of Indigenous Tourism Ontario (ITO).

With each player bringing an average of four family members with them, the tournament is estimated to generate almost $7-million in gross domestic product in the province every year.

Established in 1971, with 17 teams and 200 players in Little Current on Manitoulin Island, the event has grown exponentially, and counts former NHL players such as Reggie Leach, Ted Nolan and Jonathan Cheechoo among its alumni.

This year’s event was played across six arenas in Mississauga, and when the first morning’s play began on Monday, the Little NHL had 20 games going on simultaneously.

“We can’t even go to a small city any more because it’s just too big for hotel needs and the number of arenas we need,” Madahbee said.

Given the size of the event, with upward of 10,000 people in attendance daily, ITO piggybacks on the Little NHL to run workshops targeted toward career planning, and other cultural-education events, such as culinary seminars and virtual-reality experiences.

“We took the opportunity to run some tourism workshops for youth, and for some adults, of course, to take part in to expose them to Indigenous culture and Indigenous tourism products,” said Sherry Mayer, vice-president of operations for ITO.

Underpinning it all, of course, is the hockey. Established to provide Indigenous youth the chance to play the sport, with many denied the opportunity to play in local leagues in the seventies, the Little NHL provides an access point in more ways than one.

“[For] a lot of kids this is the first time a lot of them have ever been out of their communities,” said Madahbee, a member of Aundeck Omni Kaning First Nation, of which he was Chief for 17 years. “You know, some of these remote communities, one team was telling us their kids haven’t been anywhere in over three years because of the pandemic.”

Madahbee took on the role of acting Little NHL president when the incumbent, Marian Jacko, was required to step down from her position after being appointed to Hockey Canada’s board of directors last December.

He had previously served as the event’s full-time president, and has been involved with the tournament since the beginning. He refereed in the first Little NHL in 1971, as he was three months too old to play in the event, which caters to players from under-seven to under-18, in both competitive and recreational divisions.

“I remember it so well because we got paid a hot chocolate and a hot dog,” he laughed.

While the tournament has exploded in size, nowhere has the growth been greater than among the girls teams, with female squads now making up 46 of the 184 registered teams.

“We’re really trying at the Little NHL to profile our girls so that they get some opportunities at a higher level, too,” Madahbee said. “Maybe Olympics and college, university scene and of course, now that there’s pro hockey for women we’re trying to really get our girls showcased too, eh?”