At first glance, you wouldn’t think Yellowknife would have anything to do with a team going by the name of the Yukon Rivermen.
There is a Yellowknife connection, though, and it’s a sizable one at that.
The Rivermen is a new program which is playing its inaugural season in 2018-2019 and the end goal is to give bantam-aged players in the city a chance to play at the AAA level without having to go south to do it, as dozens of others have over the years.
Shawn Talbot is the assistant coach for the new team and said it’s all giving Northern-grown players the chance to play at a high level.
“We’re losing kids to the south every year and it’s great that they’re getting the opportunity,” he said. “We wanted to give those kids who are staying here something close to what those kids down south are getting. You don’t get looked at a lot unless you’re playing AAA and that’s the level where the Western Hockey League drafts almost all of their players from.”
Hockey NWT and Hockey Yukon came together on a deal that allowed those players who made the final roster to play for the Yukon while remaining residents of the NWT. The first tryout happened in Whitehorse this past May, followed by the staff in Whitehorse coming to Yellowknife last month to have a look at players trying out for the Canada Winter Games boys team.
The team is split as evenly as possible between both territories with 17 players and two goaltenders receiving roster cards. There are also several affiliates that didn’t make the final roster but do have a chance to play with the team should injuries arise or they’re needed to help shore up the roster.
Talbot said eight players from Yellowknife made the final cut and seven more are on the affiliate side.
“We can have up to 19 affiliates,” he said. “They get to practice with the team and can attend tournaments if we run into injury problems.”
When it comes to practices, both halves of the team will remain in their respective cities – Whitehorse and Yellowknife – and will come together for tournaments, he added.
The first tournament for the team, if you will, was the John Ferguson Memorial Ice-Breaker in Edmonton last weekend. The team got to play in four games and while they lost all four, there wasn’t any sort of prize on the line at the end if it.
“It was a series of games to give coaches an idea how players do in certain situations and to finalize rosters,” said Talbot. “For some of these kids, they’re playing full-contact at the AAA level for the first time and it can be rough on them. You take that first real big hit and you can become disengaged really quickly so this was a chance for them to get a feel for it and for the coaching staff to see what our team looks like.”
It should be noted that this team is not affiliated with the Yk Minor Hockey Association at all as none of the players are registered with the association.
Talbot said he is hopeful the Rivermen could become something of a carrot for those who play on the Wolfpack development teams.
“Maybe the Rivermen turns into a graduate program for the Wolfpack,” he said. “I’d like to see that. I want to give our kids the chance to play AAA hockey but also stay at home. Carter McLeod and Alex Cordero ended up going south to play this season and imagine how good our team would have been if we were able to keep them here.”