Selection camp for the Eastern Door & North (ED&N) teams that will participate in the 2012 National Aboriginal Hockey Championships (NAHC) was held March 24-25 at the Kahnawake Sports Complex, just outside Montreal. On hand were 50 young men and 26 young women vying for 18 spots on the men’s squad and 17 spots on the women’s team.

Three Cree players have been named to the women’s team, which will seek to avenge their loss to Team Saskatchewan in last year’s gold medal game. Dana Morrison, a 2011 NAHC second all-star team, returns. Joining Morrison are Shayna Dominique, who played hockey in the Ottawa area this past season, and Waswanipi’s April Bosum.

In addition, Sara Morrison, who just completed her first season as a member of the University of Ottawa Gee Gees hockey team, will act as assistant coach for the women’s squad.

With 50 players on hand, the selection camp for the ED&N men’s team was extremely competitive. Nearly half of those participating were cut after day one. On day two, the remaining players in camp took part in an intense scrimmage game, lasting over 90 minutes, after which the ED&N brain trust – coach Jean Dupuis, assistant coach Kenny Kane and team managers Peter Jacobs and Jeff Spencer – was left with the difficult task of making final cuts.

When the dust cleared, four Cree players had made the cut for the men’s team. Three are returning from the 2011 team, including William Blacksmith, Synee Coonishish and Danny Visitor. They will be joined by Jonathan Petawabano, who will be making his first appearance at the NAHC. Goaltender Nimi Blacksmith, who played solid during the second day scrimmage, was named as an alternate.

At press time, two spots remain to be filled on the 17-member squad, which Kane expects to happen sometime in early April.

One important change with this year’s men’s team is the absence behind the bench of former coach Steve Cheechoo, who led the men’s team to within an overtime goal of last year’s gold medal. Cheechoo is familiar with many of the players on this year’s squad, particularly Blacksmith, Coonishish and Visitor.

“Synee (Coonishish) will probably play a bigger role this year’s team,” said Cheechoo. “He can score, and spark the team’s offense.

In reference to Blacksmith, Cheechoo added, “He’s a solid checker – that will be important against some of the strong teams from the West.

“As for Petawabano, it is his first year, so it will be a learning experience for him playing at that calibre,” continued Cheechoo. “It will be tougher and more physical hockey, so he will have to make adjustments.

“I think it is Danny Visitor’s final year. I think he knows what is at stake after a few years at the tournament. He brings size and talent, so he could have a big role on the team this year.”

Cheechoo also had high praise for Andrew Kistabish, an Algonquin who arrived at camp sporting blonde hair, although he did not need it to get noticed on the ice.

“I think Andrew could play a big role on this year’s team,” said Cheechoo. “He could be one of the top players on the team and in the tournament.”

So what are the keys to success for this year’s ED&N teams? According to Cheechoo, it is all about conditioning and teamwork.

“Conditioning is very important before they head to Saskatchewan,” said Cheechoo. “They need to be skating and doing things now to stay in shape. It will be a tough tournament against teams that are usually good like Manitoba and Saskatchewan.”

Both teams will hold a departure camp in Kahnawake on May 5, before flying to Saskatoon the next day in time for the tournament to start on May 7.