Friendships were struck, cultures exchanged and memories made as players from Rankin Inlet travelled to Etobicoke, Ont., near Toronto for the first leg of the Northern Exchange program with players from the Mimico Canadiens Hockey Association.
Travel costs were funded by a grant from Experiences Canada, with the young players raising the money in each locale to pay the remaining expenses.
While in the Toronto area from Oct. 6 to 16, the Rankin players attended two NHL games at the Air Canada Centre and a Maple Leafs practice at the Mastercard Centre, where they toured the archives, visited the dressing rooms, met with NHL alumni and filmed a segment for Hockey Night in Canada, as well as visiting the Royal Ontario Museum, CN Tower, Hockey Hall of Fame and Niagara Falls.
On Oct. 12 more than 700 students from 15 different schools in Etobicoke joined the Rankin players and their chaperones for a special assembly at John English Middle School, which included a speaking-and-singing presentation of Canadian Inuit history by Susan Aglukark.
The second leg of the exchange will see the Mimico players, parents and coaches visit Rankin on April 27.
Rachele Verbeek accompanied her daughter, Jaiden, on the trip and said the entire experience was totally awesome.
She said it was a fantastic experience for the Rankin players, and a real awakening for many of them to see everyday life in such a completely different environment.
“This was much more than a hockey trip because it had so many cultural aspects,” said Verbeek, adding the kids were “really taken back” by the size of the city.
“The kids were so generous. They were pulling their last $20 out of their pockets and giving it to the homeless people they met in downtown Toronto,” said Verbeek.
“It was really amazing to see, as was seeing the commonality of hockey and how having just the game in common brings people together and then snowballs into having everything in common.”
Kyle Tattuinee was on the trip with his son, Liam.
He said it was a real eye-opener for many of the Rankin kids.
“It introduced the kids to so much diversity through life down south,” said Tattuinee.
“We had kids who were never any farther south than Thompson or Winnipeg, so you can imagine the impact Canada’s biggest city had on them. Going to two NHL games was really something, and many of the kids were overwhelmed by how crazy it can be just getting into the Air Canada Centre. That experience was really stressful for a lot of them because it’s nothing like Rankin, where you can walk right into the arena so easily.”
Tattuinee said many of the Rankin kids were blown away by the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“They were really excited about all the activities lined up for them, but the Hockey Hall of Fame really captured the imaginations of many of them,” he said. The kids were especially captivated by the shooting exhibits, where players try shoot at a screen to try to score on an NHL goalie, or try to block the net from players like Nazem Kadri and Shea Weber.
“Every kid lined up for that, with some of them even lining-up twice,” said Tattuinee
“During our entire stay, the interaction between our kids and the Mimico kids was just awesome, and the Mimico kids can’t wait to experience life in Rankin Inlet.”
Atoms coach Katie Bell started the puck sliding on the program about a year ago and said while it might be a cliche, the trip was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the kids and the adults who accompanied them.
“Some type of cultural or learning experience happened every day, and everyone took something good out of the trip on a personal level.” said Bell.
“Hockey set the wheels in motion for the exchange, but our games were the furthest thing from the centre of attention during the trip. It was about the kids wanting to play with their new friends. I loved our games being all about just having fun.”
Bell said there were lots of tears when the Rankin players were leaving for home.
She said the bar has been set pretty high for Rankin Inlet to reciprocate by giving the Mimico kids a visit they won’t soon forget this April.
“I really didn’t have a ton of support from the community when I started this, so I was worried about bringing the Toronto kids to Nunavut because I knew it would never fly without everyone’s support,” she said.
“But once the kids got to Toronto and the trip came to life, everyone started to come around and I saw a lot more interest in wanting to give back to the people who gave their kids such a good trip. I feel a bit better about them coming to Rankin now, and I’m more confident the community will get behind the kids and help plan a great trip for the Toronto teams.”