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A year ago, this squad from Eabametoong First Nation community had no equipment, no ice time, no place to get changed. Thanks to the generosity of many, they'll play in the nation's capital this weekend

The Rez Girls 64 Wolves play their last scrimmage before leaving for Ottawa.

"What time is it?" the coach asks.

"What time is it?" she repeats.


"IT'S HOWLING TIME!" scream the 19 players who make up the Rez Girls 64 Wolves, a peewee hockey team out of Fort Hope, a small isolated community that lies deep in the northwestern Ontario bush some 360 kilometres north of Thunder Bay.

The children of Eabametoong First Nation, once known as Reservation No. 64, are off to Ottawa, where this weekend they will participate in the 35th annual Kanata Girls Hockey Association House League Tournament.

The Wolves have never played another girls team.

They have no uniforms, having outgrown last year's jerseys.

Little more than a year ago, they had no equipment, no ice time, not even a place to dress if they'd had the equipment and ice time.

But now, thanks to some remarkable generosity by a distant high-schooler, by a small Ontario city, by a photographer, by a cop and by some silent donors, the Wolves landed in Ottawa on Tuesday afternoon. Before they suit up for the tournament, they will tour Parliament Hill, visit the RCMP's musical ride, see the Museum of History and attend an NHL game. They will also get in a practice before playing their first game ever against female teams that have enjoyed superb facilities, top coaching and their own equipment.

"I hope we do well," head coach Leslie Campbell says, "even if it's just a tie."

The team poses for a photo on Parliament Hill, March 22, 2018.

The gear has landed

Leslie Campbell wondered what she had gotten herself into during the summer of 2016 when she landed in Fort Hope, population 1,300, an Ojibway village accessible only by air and canoe. She was 26 years old and was part of the Teach For Canada program that places qualified educators in remote Northern communities.

The new Grade One teacher was barely off the plane when a group of young girls asked her if she would coach a girls hockey team. They knew she had played the game – as a competitive goaltender growing up in Whitby, Ont. – and they were insistent. The only issue was, at that moment, there was no girls team.

"Little did I know how much work it was going to be," laughs Campbell.

She recruited another teacher, Candi Chin-Sang, as an assistant coach and then struck gold when they got Leo Atlookan to join them. Now known as "Grampa Hockey" to his teammates on the village old-timers team, the 47-year-old Atlookan had once been a large and physical player who for many years had also coached … boys.

"When I was in my twenties," he says, "I wouldn't play with girls, I wouldn't coach girls, no matter what."

But things changed. His niece, Pearl, wanted to play, and he agreed to show her how. And in a game, he had bowled over a young woman who was playing for the other side, sending her and her helmet flying down the ice. He hadn't even realized it was a female hockey player, and though he felt "bad" about the collision, he also gained huge admiration for her determination to play, even when there were no girls teams in the area.

The three coaches began with the obvious fundamental: skating. Some of the girls had never worn skates. No one could skate well. The community rink had no ice time for them, so they held their first practice on the frozen lake.

They had only skates and sticks and pucks, but, thanks to a young woman in Markham, Ont., they soon had more hockey equipment than they could use.

Emma Tworzyanski, then a Grade 12 student at Bill Crothers Secondary School, heard from her father, Andrew, an engineer who often worked in the north, that the village of Fort Hope had precious little hockey equipment and no store to sell it. As a project for her sports management class, she scrounged about the Toronto-area community until she had collected 45 bags of new and used hockey pads and skates.

Tworzyanski was able to talk a trucking firm and an airline into delivering the material for free – a cost that would have exceeded $10,000 – and the 45 bags were off to Fort Hope.

"The intention was never to outfit a girls team," says Tworzyanski, now a first-year student at the Smith School of Business at Queen's University in Kingston. "I actually didn't even know that a girls team was created until I later travelled to Fort Hope."

Some of the players had never worn skates before joining the team.

Campbell says she was stunned when a man came from the airstrip to tell her a trailer full of hockey equipment had arrived. She gathered the team together, and they began going through the bags, the girls so unfamiliar with some of the equipment that Campbell eventually led a "class" in how to dress for a game, the girls following her every move.

"They wondered what was this plastic piece you put in your mouth," chuckles Atlookan.

Once they had equipment, they got some ice time in the arena, though they were forced to dress in the boiler room, next to the Zamboni. If a player had to go to the washroom, it meant undressing, dressing, running to the school, then coming back and undressing, dressing all over again.

They practised against the town's peewee boys team (ages 11 and 12), and they registered to play in their first-ever tournament in Thunder Bay, the closest large centre to the reserve. The tournament was created to bring together Indigenous communities from the north, and though they would be forced to play against boys teams, it seemed a good idea at the time.

It did not start well, however. On the day of their flight, an ice storm struck, forcing the plane carrying the Wolves to land at Sioux Lookout, a five-hour bus ride away from the tournament.

Once they made it to Thunder Bay, they lost every game against the stronger and better-trained boys teams, but that soon became the least of their troubles.

They ran into sexism at the rink and racism in the streets. Excited for their first-ever visit to a Walmart, the girls' shopping experience was clouded by an angry woman who deliberately struck both a player and one of the coaches with her shopping cart. In the arena, they were called "brown girls" and ridiculed.

Campbell, who had grown up in another world, was "shocked" by the overt racism she witnessed.

Chin-Sang, who reported the arena incidents to the organizers, was disappointed when no action was taken. "They did a poor job in responding," she says.

The team returned to Fort Hope disappointed but not discouraged. They were now a "team," they told themselves, and they would support each other. Teachers at the school remarked how the players were showing improved attendance and marks.

"Hockey was my world as a child," Campbell says. "It was where I learned my social and emotional skills – though I didn't realize I was learning them."

Atlookan, who also serves as the school's social counsellor, says he talks to the players about much more than hockey before and after games. "I tell them, 'You're First Nations. You're girls. You're going to turn into women and you're going to do something big. But you cannot do it alone. You have to put your hand out to others. You have to help each other.' "

Late in that first season, one of their most ardent fans took her own life. The suicide devastated the girls on the team. They found the dressing room a place of healing. "We talk about everything," Atlookan says. "We follow up, and we tell them why we are following up. We teach them that they can help others."

"When I think about the girls hockey team," Chin-Sang says, "I want to cry tears of joy and sadness. I am so proud of the young women they have become, but I am so infuriated that such opportunities are not provided to them in the first place."

Players pet a horse at the RCMP Musical Ride Centre stable in Ottawa.

Hockey angels

When their second season came around, the Wolves lost a coach, as Chin-Sang had decided to take a master's in social work at the University of Toronto in the hope of making a career serving Indigenous communities.

Another teacher, Allison Norman, took over managing the team. Eight of the 19 players were in her Grade 6 class and she had seen, firsthand, the benefits of team play pay off in the classroom.

"It has made a difference," Norman says. "Now they are part of a group. They help each other in class. They say things like 'Remember, you're on the team.' They listen better. They're respectful. The team has become extended family for them."

Norman, Campbell and Atlookan began to consider another off-reserve trip for the team and found an all-girls tournament in an Ottawa suburb that seemed to offer much more than just the hockey experience.

"We really want to open up their world," Campbell says.

When they costed out the trip, however, it seemed both exorbitant and impossible. The 19 players, the coaches and various parents would require flights to and from Ottawa. They would need a bus to take them around. They would have to book hotel rooms. They would pay an entry fee for the tournament and, of course, there would be meals. When Norman tallied up her likely budget, it came to more than $100,000.

The team took to fundraising. They held a bake sale, a flea market, put on a movie night, bingos, held a walkathon – but no one could raise $100,000 through cookies and bingo cards.

There were also other costs. Girls at the peewee age often experience growth spurts. Last year's jerseys, tight a year ago, were impossible this year. They would have to get new jerseys.

Ryanne Wapoose (left) and Danielle Jacob (centre) at the ByWard Market in Ottawa.

Fortunately, people elsewhere now knew their story, courtesy of a powerful radio documentary that played last year on the CBC's The Doc Project. It told the story of the Wolves' genesis and their disastrous trip to that first tournament in Thunder Bay.

Katie and Steve Koopman heard the broadcast in Kingston and decided to help. Steve Koopman is a constable with the Kingston Police force, but the couple also owns a small local business, Unveiled Photography. The Koopmans connected with Norman, and, when they learned of the possibility of the Ottawa trip, they said they would come and take custom team and player photographs for free.

Meanwhile, other angels were landing. Contributions came in from various sources, much of it through Teach For Canada, the not-for-profit organization that has so far placed 75 teachers in isolated northern communities. The town of Markham paid for new jerseys, which were awaiting the girls when they landed in Ottawa.

Once the Ottawa trip became a certainty, the Koopmans decided to do something extra. They would take the team and its supporters to an NHL game, as the Ottawa Senators were scheduled to play the Edmonton Oilers and Connor McDavid just before the start of the tournament.

They set up a GoFundMe page with a goal of raising $5,000 to pay for the tickets. As of Wednesday, it had reached $6,620. The Kingston Police Association has committed another $500 to the fund.

"It's just been crazy," says Katie Koopman of the Kingston response to a faraway village most had never heard of before.

One large donation came from Joanne and Paul Langlois. He is a member of The Tragically Hip , which last year lost its lead singer, Gord Downie, to cancer.

"There's very little we can do to fill the void that Gord has left in our lives," Joanne Langlois wrote in a note to the Koopmans, "but we can pay the gift of loving him forward. This was perfect. It combined two of his greatest loves: our Indigenous community and hockey."

The Koopmans say they will keep the funding page alive through this weekend, until the end of the tournament, and any monies in excess of ticket costs will go to Teach For Canada in the hopes of sending more teachers like Campbell, Norman and Chin-Sang into isolated communities such as Fort Hope.

Each player received a new track suit with the team logo when they arrived in Ottawa.

There was another surprise awaiting them when they reached Ottawa. Thanks to Scotiabank, each player had a brand new track suit, the team logo proudly stitched over the heart.

"They look like a real team," Campbell says.

They have been for some time.

"What time is it?"