In Nunavut, hockey means a lot
by Lucas Aykroyd|19 OCT 2021
The youngest players enjoyed their time on the ice in Iqaluit, Nunavut in the north of Canada.
If you read that 35 girls took part in World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend on Sunday in Nunavut, the numbers don’t fully convey the impact of what happened.

Yes, it’s more than half of the 63 girls registered with the Iqaluit Amateur Hockey Association this season – there are 200-plus registered hockey players in total – and that’s a good step forward. Especially after the challenges of the last two years, a day devoted to skating demos, practice drills and half-ice games is welcome – not to mention pizza and cake for everyone afterwards.

Yet if you speak to Alexia Cousins, the association’s Vice-President and Chairperson of Female Hockey, you sense just how much WGIHW resonates in the capital of Nunavut. Iqaluit is a city of 7,740 in a northern Canadian territory that covers more than 2 million square kilometres, where polar bears roam the Arctic tundra and bowhead whale bones lie on the beaches. Here, a chance to come together and celebrate the national sport as the days get darker and colder means a lot.

For Canada’s Indigenous population, Iqaluit is a unique place. The city web site notes: “Iqaluit encompasses an area of about 52 square kilometres and has the highest population of Inuit (3900) of all Canadian cities over 5000 people. English and Inuktitut are spoken regularly in Iqaluit. While 92 percent of people speak English, only 45 percent identify it as their mother tongue. Another 46 percent identify Inuktitut as their mother tongue.” caught up with Cousins after the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend.

How did your event go?

It was my first day back on the ice. So I’m a little tired and the girls are tired. But everyone had a great time!

Where did it take place?

At our 2,500-capacity Arctic Winter Games Arena complex. We’re kind of dealing with a water crisis in town. So things have been touch and go.

We’re sorry to hear about that. What happened?

There were hydrocarbons – basically diesel or some kind of fuel contaminants – detected in our water. We have been on a no-consumption order since Tuesday. So we’re relying on the Sylvia Grinnell River just outside of the town limits. Our territorial government and some mining corporations have flown in jugs and bottles of water for the town.

What a challenging situation. You must be glad you were able to go ahead with World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend.

Thankfully! We were so grateful that the recreational facilities weren’t closed due to the water order. We made it work, and it was fantastic.

What range of ages was represented this year?

From ages four to 17. We booked off this evening from 5 pm to 8 pm. Ages four to seven were on the ice from 5 to 6. And then ages eight to 13 were on from 6 to 7. Finally, the oldest group skated from 7 to 8 pm. We also had some of the 12- and 13-year-olds joining older groups.

How many were trying hockey for the first time?

With the first group of little girls, 50 per cent of them are new to hockey. A little wobbly on their feet, not great skaters yet. It’s their first time in hockey. I think this was a great way for them to start the season. We had a few coaches on the ice for one-on-one skating support. And in our oldest group, we had one new girl move to town, who had played hockey in her smaller community, but this is a different place for her. 
Group photo of the age group 8-13.
Any special guests?

No, because of Covid-19 and our strict territorial rules, we didn’t bring anybody in. But it was helpful for our local coaches to meet the new skaters they’ll be seeing for the rest of the season.

In general, how is girls’ hockey faring in Iqaluit?

I’ll give you my perspective. I’ve been involved in hockey here more so over the last four years, although I kind of helped before that too. What really got me involved is that my daughter is enrolled. She’s 16 and a goalie. She started out in peewee as a defender, but was committed to goalie by the next season and has played that position ever since.

Just watching it over the last few years, it’s grown quite a bit in the sense of new players. My older girls – the 14-and-up age group – has dropped down significantly, but that’s mostly due to them getting chances to attend hockey schools down south.

Still, our numbers have continued to rise for registered girls every season over the last three seasons. Last season, we had just over 50 players. This year, it’s 63. That might not seem like a big difference, but it’s a big jump for a smaller community.

What does hockey mean to Iqaluit and the Inuit community?

Hockey is everything. If you ask anybody, “What’s your favourite team?”, mostly the biggest rivalry here is the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs. People here live and breathe hockey.

During Iqaluit’s Toonik Tyme festival in April – the welcoming of spring festival – we have a minor hockey tournament where teams from around Nunavut compete. And the rink is packed. We’ve had to turn away people from spectating and even implemented a live streaming of the games. It’s a huge event. So with Covid in the last two years, not being able to hold Toonik Tyme has been a huge letdown for these players.

We’re very fortunate here. We fundraised and end up traveling down south to Ottawa or Toronto or Montreal to participate in tournaments. But for most of our people who live outside Iqaluit in smaller communities, Toonik Tyme is their big tournament.

How does Toonik Tyme showcase girls’ hockey?

Well, there’s usually not enough girls from other communities to put together their own teams. But we do make sure the girls get to participate. Usually the girls will play five games, or best-of-five for the weekend. At the last two Toonik Tyme tournaments, we had two and three teams, so they were really just playing against each other. We made it fun last time when we only had two teams and just kind of mixed them together. There’s not that many girls that play hockey or come here to play hockey. It’s hard, but you gotta make it work.

Day-to-day, what does it mean to have that opportunity to play hockey outdoors in the North?

It helps a lot. You know, suicide is an epidemic here. Physical health plays so much into mental health, especially during the dark months. When the sun sets here at 4 pm, it’s dark by 5. And that really, really affects people. So to have a sport or an activity that you don’t have to necessarily pay for – because not everybody can afford registration fees and equipment – is huge.

We’re fortunate enough to have small ponds where volunteers – nice people in the neighbourhood – will clear off some snow so kids can play hockey if the rinks are closed and have some fun. Friendly play is a major thing here. Twelve or 14 kids can spend three hours playing out there.

That might seem insignificant to some people, but for those kids, it means the world. It makes their day, and they look forward to that. It makes an impact and becomes newsworthy in town. Someone will snap a picture, put it on social media, and then someone else will volunteer to help the next time to clear off the ice. Or you’ll see the local RCMP [Royal Canadian Mounted Police] also getting involved, playing games with the youth or offering to shovel and clear the ice.
Team photo of the more experienced players at the World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend in Iqaluit.
Did your girls get to watch the Women’s Worlds in Calgary?

On our local cable provider, unfortunately, some other sports were airing in place of the women’s hockey games. It wasn’t that easy for people to access to watch. Internet is slow here, and not everybody has home Internet. If you couldn’t stream it or didn’t have a satellite dish, it wasn’t readily available.

Hopefully it’ll be easier during the Olympics. There are some great First Nations role models on Team Canada, like Jocelyne Larocque and Jamie Lee Rattray. What kind of impact do they have?

Talking to the older girls, they don’t seem to pay as much attention to specific players. But I’ve heard girls talk about wanting to be on the Olympic team. You hear boys talking about wanting to play World Juniors. So they’re always striving to do their best, working toward those goals.

Players here know their chance to make those teams is very small, especially coming from a place where we don’t have a lot of camps or the intensity of training that may be available in southern provinces. But the ambition is very much alive.

What are your goals for the future?

Right now, we’re just trying to secure our program. It’s been a trying thing over the last few years. This is my second term in my position on our executive board. We rely strictly on volunteer coaches for our programs, and finding volunteers to coach the girls is the biggest challenge in terms of having a consistent female program.

There’s a couple of weeks in the winter when we host week-long camps through Andrews Hockey, which operates out of Prince Edward Island. We also usually hold a week-long camp in the summer – if the arena is open, that is. Usually they close over the summer.

When you reflect on this 2021 World Girls’ Ice Hockey Weekend, what will you remember?

All the smiles! To be completely honest, last season was really rough for me. And I think it was rough for a lot of people, navigating through Covid and Covid fatigue. But I was anxious to get back on the ice, get back to coaching. 

Today reminded me why I’m there: the laughter, the smiles, just watching the girls come together, support each other, and encourage each other in drills and in games. They’re so excited to get on the ice, shoot, and score.

I’ve really missed these girls. You know, I’ve been with them for quite a while. They call me “Mama Coach.” It’s great to be back with my girls. Today was our first time on the ice since March. You watch the muscle memory and the reflexes kick in. It’s amazing to see how quickly they get back into hockey.