Only one kind of sports tournament normally takes place in a remote northern First Nation. I am referring to the hockey tournament. This mid-winter get-together is special and considered an important sporting and social event. The hockey tournament is a major community highlight that requires the participation of many community members and brings in people from surrounding communities.
One has to consider that not very much excitement takes place during the year in an isolated community that is far removed from the rest of the world. It is either too difficult or too expensive for people to travel in the summertime, so nothing much ever happens during the warm months of the year.
However, as soon as the muskeg freezes, when the rivers turn to ice and the snow is deep enough, family and friends from nearby communities find it easier to travel from one place to the other. Although fuel is expensive it is much easier and cheaper to move about on a snowmobile to other communities that by aircraft.
A hockey tournament is not just a sporting event. Usually a major bingo is organized to coincide with the three- or four-day round-robin tournament. Often the hockey tournament will feature a Monster Bingo. This major event is a three- or four-hour fundraising bonanza, that hosts multi-part games which include door prizes, numerous smalltime cash grabs, mid-level game plays and three or four major multi $1000 grand prizes.
For a few hours in the wintertime, it feels like a major casino has landed in town. Everyone comes out to take part in these games and entire families line up to pay dearly for lots of paper bingo cards for grandparents, parents, children and grandchildren.
In the 1990s, back home in Attawapiskat, the famed monster bingo was usually held at the school gymnasium at the JR Nakogee Elementary School. I remember walking up to the main doors in freezing minus-40 temperature. As soon as I entered the building, the combined body heat of 300 or 400 bingo players was a welcome change.
Monster bingo players sat shoulder-to-shoulder in packed rows in the gym and more people lined the surrounding hallways. The hum of several hundred people was deafening and the booming voice of a bingo caller over a concert sized PA system made us feel like we were in Las Vegas. Well, maybe Orillia at least.
In the evenings, we all watched the live tourney hockey games and cheered for the hometown players. The game itself was secondary as we all rallied for all of the excitement that revolved around the hockey matches. It was a chance to meet relatives we rarely saw during the year. It was also an opportunity to meet new friends and reconnect with those we had not seen in years.
In the stands and in the crowds, the hockey game was not foremost on our minds. There was more attention paid to talk about who did what during the year, what happened in one family or another and who had been born and who had died. The constant chatter was only interrupted when everyone paused to cheer for a goal that was scored by one team or another.
Those days of the hockey tournaments stand out in my mind. I was really into them when I was a teenager in Attawapiskat. In the days leading up to the event, there was a frenzy of phone calls between family, friends and relations looking for a place to stay. Back then, there were no hotels in the community and everyone relied on the hospitality of relatives in order to take part in a three- or four-day hockey tournament and monster bingo.
I recall having to give up my room and bunking with my brothers while relatives took over our beds, the living room and dining-room floor. If our guests were organized they arrived with their own mattresses, blankets and pillows. During the days, we all shared the cost and preparation of feasts of bacon and eggs, gallons of tea, endless coffee and stews of goose, moose and caribou.
There was also a dark side to these events and in the chaos of an overnight population boom, alcohol and drugs circulated in many of the overcrowded homes. Thankfully there were also safe havens in the community where Elders and children gathered.
All and all, the hockey tournament served a purpose in that it broke the monotony of a long and hard winter. It was like the circus had come to town. There was excitement in the air, people rushed here and there, there was lots to eat and drink and most of us had a pretty good time.
Still, when all the trophies had been presented, the community hall had been cleaned up and our tournament visitors had headed back down the trails to their respective communities it was good to have our town back. Now we could focus on the coming of spring, the call of the Niska, Canada Goose and the flow of water on the mighty Attawapiskat River and the great James Bay.