By TRT Staff
For half a century, the Little Native Hockey League (Little NHL) stands as a symbol of celebration for Indigenous unity through sport.
After a pandemic-induced hiatus, it’s set for a long-awaited return.
More than 200 teams representing First Nations throughout Ontario will again get a chance to come together, to celebrate, to revel in a collective love of hockey.
In tracing the history of the Little NHL back to its roots, there are both gems and hardships that decorate its path.
The tournament began on Manitoulin Island on the inaugural year in 1971. Unknown to some, the tournament was created in response to racism that was being experienced by players in the surrounding area.
Some players were told they were not qualified to play in triple-A teams in nearby cities or double-A teams that were close by. First Nations players could be eligible to play in tournaments, but could end up either not being able to participate or, if they were, they were sat on the bench.
A group of five community leaders came together to create the new tournament in response, to make sure that a tournament opened its doors and granted First Nations youth the chance to play for their communities, to showcase the talent that was hidden away.
In other words, the Little NHL experience has always been about more than just hockey. The vision extends far beyond a means of determining which community boasted the most skill, and into celebrating one another. It was that vision that the tournament’s founders established what they called the Little NHL’s ‘four pillars’ during that inaugural tournament: citizenship, respect, education and sportsmanship.
Fast-forward half a century, and that seed blossomed into something beautiful still, and far-reaching. The first 17 teams doubled, then tripled, and the squads from the Manitoulin area soon joined by Moose Factory, then others from southern Ontario that made the trek north. Fifty teams turned to 100, and then 200, soon 250.
Now, the tournament’s a yearly staple, one that has been missed throughout the pandemic, with a circle on calendars months in advance. With many players having aged out and some aged in, 2023 will be a year the beloved experience is welcomed back by communities.
Ontario Law Society named Wiikwemkoong’s Marian Jacko its distinguished female lawyer back in June of 2022, who also serves as the president of the Little NHL.