The future of the two Cree Nation hockey teams was being decided at a meeting in Chibougamau as we went to press this issue. The future looks bright. But not enough to wear shades.
Both teams are now in a fragile position as second-class citizens in Quebec’s hockey world. This year for the first time Crees were allowed to hit the ice against teams in the regional Midget and Bantam hockey leagues. But the matches were only exhibition games and Crees have yet to be accepted as full league members.
The Abitibi Hockey Federation will decide this spring if the two teams will be accepted as members of the league next season after getting blackballed the last two years. They will be looking at this season’s performance to see if the Crees are worthy.
On the Cree side, people are optimistic. It was on the road at tournaments that Cree youth put on their best show.
The younger Bantam CC Cree Nation Bears steamrolled into first place in tourneys in LaSarre and St. Bruno-de-Guigues. Bantams Reginald Gilpin and Lance Blacksmith won awards for outstanding playing.
For the Bears, coached by Stan Jones and Steve Cheechoo, the tournaments capped off a remarkable season in which they won almost every game they played. Sadly, the team was knocked out in the regional tournament in Amos and won’t make the provincial finals coming up this month.
The Midgets started off the year with a wimper but ended it with almost a bang. A tough first season was troubled by organizational problems, the demoralizing effect of not being a league member and a late start because of the fight with the league last year. Also, there were problems with forging a disciplined team out of a loose group of talented individuals not used to playing together.
The first half of the season saw the team win only once, but they rallied in the second half with an even 3-3 record, “which isn’t bad for the first year,” as Jeff Spencer, who coached the team, put it.
One of the main problems was helping the players adjust to the move to Mistissini, the teams’ home base, from the other communities, said Spencer.
The problems are almost the same as for post-secondary students moving south, said Real Lacroix of the Ouje-Bougoumou recreation department. “Adapting to a new school, a new home, it’s tough on them,” he said. “We have to make them feel like they’re at home. We still have a lot of homework to do. I think it’s going to take a while for the team to really gel as a team.”
Probably the most contentious question on the table at the meeting in Chibougamau will be the home base for the hockey teams next season. The teams may now be based in Mistissini, where they enjoy warm community support, but they probably wouldn’t even exist if it hadn’t been for Sam Gull Or.) of Waswanipi, who first proposed the idea some years back.
After Gull tirelessly lobbied for a Cree Nation hockey team, the concept was finally picked up by Norman Gull of the CRA and others who made it a reality. Last year, Waswanipi was promised in an “agreement-in-principle” that the teams would be based there for the second season. Now, some of the powers-that-be in Mistissini are backsliding, arguing that moving the teams would cause extra headaches at ’a sensitive time. Stay tuned.