Last year was a historic result for Team North at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships as they won a silver medal, the first medal of any colour for the North at the annual tournament.
The man who led the boys team to that result said there’s no reason why his boys can’t go one better this year.
Inuvik’s Les Skinner is once again the bench boss for the boys team, which includes players from all three territories, and it gets going today with game one of the round-robin against Alberta in Cowichan, B.C.
Skinner said every year is different but this year’s team is certainly capable of at least the same finish as last year.
“We have 10 returning players and eight new bodies,” he said. “I think we have a definite shot at medalling. The experience the returning players bring will hold us in good stead an the experience of winning our first medal last year will hopefully be passed on to the new kids.”
Skinner will be joined behind the bench this year by Yellowknife’s Ryan O’Connor and Fort Smith’s Shaun MacPherson, both of who come with plenty of experience in coaching and playing at the junior level.
The boys opened up last year’s tournament in Mississauga, Ont., against Alberta and defeated them, the first time they’ve ever done it, and Skinner said he knows Alberta will be ready this time around.
“It’ll be a good benchmark for us,” he said. “I know those players who were on that Alberta team last year haven’t forgotten about it and they’ll come at us hard.”
The team had three days of training camp in Nanaimo, B.C., to get as ready as they can be for game one and Skinner thinks they’re good to go.
“I don’t see why we can’t win it all,” he said. “We showed everyone last year we can compete and we believe in ourselves so a gold medal is the goal.”
The girls squad will be led by head coach Candace MacEachen of Whitehorse with Yellowknife’s Kaylee Grant serving as her assistant.
Both ladies are familiar with one another as they were part of last year’s coaching squad and Grant said the philosophies are the same.
“We both think along the same lines when it comes to preparation and strategy and we’ve worked well together in the past,” she said.
This year’s outfit will be a younger squad but there are some experienced players returning to the mix, including Susie Chambers and Sahara Lafferty.
Grant said girls hockey in the North experiences ups and downs and this is a year where the younger players will get a chance to shine.
“We lost players like Shakita Jensen and Davina McLeod but we still have a strong group,” she said. “It’s not an Arctic Winter Games year so we weren’t able to get a good look at what was out there but our job was to find all of the eligible players we could and I think we have a real competitive team.”
The girls finished eighth one year ago, meaning they will be in Division 1 with Saskatchewan, the defending champions, Alberta and B.C., all of which are strong teams and all capable of coming loaded offensively.
Grant said job no. 1 will be looking after their own end of the ice first and taking the chances when they come.
“We don’t really know the ability of all the girls and so the strategy could change, depending on what we see in front of us,” she said. “It could be a box-plus-1 system or we build a trap with a 1-2-2 setup. Situations change all the time so we’ll adjust and change when we have to.”
The girls also had a three-day training camp leading up to the start of the tournament and had an exhibition game against Team Atlantic on May 30.
“They’re in the same boat we are,” said Grant of Team Atlantic. “They’re having their camp when they arrive here and we traditionally play them in exhibition before we get going.”