Cree communities across Eeyou Istchee came together to play the good old Canadian game of ice hockey in Val-d’Or December 13-14. Altogether there were 54 teams that competed to be top team in both men and women’s hockey and broomball. This was the 29th year for the CREE Senior Hockey and Broomball Tournament, which brought out the who’s who of the Cree community.

Among the notables was Deputy Grand Chief Ashley Iserhoff. “I remember coming here when I was a kid. It’s nice to see this has evolved into the tournament that it’s become and every year it gets bigger and bigger.”

This year’s tourney was so popular that most, if not all, of the hotel rooms in Val-d’Or were booked that weekend.

Charles Hester, who has organized the tournament since 2004, says that setting up a tourney like this requires months of planning. Hockey is also a great way to keep kids occupied in the community by teaching them discipline and hard work. “We have a lot of negative influences in our communities, like drugs and alcohol. Hockey keeps our kids focused on what’s important and provides a possible way out if they work hard enough.”

There was also a scrimmage of former NHLers against the Cree All Stars. Asked if it was difficult to bring NHLers to events like this, Hester responded, “Not really. It’s really who you know and it’s also a great way for the NHL to show its support.”

Then he added, “They also enjoy coming up here. This is the game they love and who knows maybe the next Johnathan Cheechoo or Jordin Tootoo might be here.”

Hester has six boys who play hockey so in his family Native hockey culture has become an inspiring motivator. Players like Cheechoo, Tootoo and Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price have become icons for the youth Hester said. “You need to eat, drink and sleep hockey in order to join NHL ranks.”

Support seems to be the key word when it comes to training young people to play the game, which most parents don’t mind doing. Delores Tanush, who had three daughters playing broomball at the tournament, said, “It helps them stay focused and teaches them discipline.”

Team coach Yvan Cournoyer, a 10-time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens, talked about how important tournaments like this one are. “Gaston Gingras has been here for a few years and he asked me to come and coach the team this year. It’s been here for 29 years and it’s important to support tournaments like this one.”

Waswanipi Chief John Kitchen shared his thoughts about the tourney. “It’s an event that our youth can come and participate and learn about hockey and fair play.”

Most of the organizers and guests expressed a similar message, that this isn’t just a hockey tournament but a learning experience.

It is an opportunity to build bridges and also maintain them said Pierre Corbeil, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs for the Quebec government who represents Abitibi-Est. “It’s really important to strengthen ties between the government and First Nation communities, ties like the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement with the Cree and Inuit both of whom are in negotiations to create Native self-government which both sides want to achieve.”

He went to say that it is very important to strengthen the language, culture, health and way of life for the Cree and Inuit.

Corbeil also mentioned that he had met with provincial and territorial Indian affairs ministers from across Canada to discuss First Nations issues. “In October, we all met with our federal counterpart and put on the table two proposals dealing with economic development and education.”

When asked about the issue of violence against Native women, Corbeil added what was put on this table to deal with the issue, would involve community groups, police from all levels and the government.

During the opening ceremony the Canadian national anthem was sung by Olympic torchbearer Marc Hunter, an Algonquin from Lac Simon. He was chosen by the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Committee as an urban Aboriginal community hero of which they are only six. Hunter works at the Val-d’Or Native Friendship Centre and volunteers in the community and for Québec en Forme, a government group that help young Quebecers live physical and healthy lifestyles. “I’m very involved with Aboriginal culture. I emcee and dance in Powwows. I also involve my kids because it’s important that they know that it’s their identity.”

Hunter’s message of don’t let people put you down and believe in yourself echoed throughout the arena with the people who came to watch and those who participated. George Matthew, from the Chisasibi Hunters who played in net against the NHLers, said how proud he was to take on players like former Canadiens Gaston Gingras and tough guy Chris Nilan. “It was fun being on the ice with those guys, the history among them is great.”

Silas Blackned, who’s been playing with the Nemaska Axemen for three years, was another player who got the chance to play against the former NHLers. “It was inspiring to play against legends who, I’m sure if they signed up at the tourney, could easily win it.”

In the end, the champions in their respective groups were Mistissini Trappers (Class A), Wemindji Sly Foxes (Class B1), Winneway Osisko (Class B2), Wemindji Paint Hills (Old Timers Hockey), Waskaganish Panthers (Women’s Hockey), Waskaganish Starlites (Women’s Broomball Competitive), and Kiticisakik (Women’s Broomball Recreational).

The competition may have been heated at times, but all in all it was an engaging event with great plays, a few fights and a lot of laughs. Next year is the 30th anniversary of the tournament and from what was witnessed this weekend it will be even greater.