Touted as the underdogs going in, and comprised of players who hadn’t actually played together as a full team, the Atom Gitxsan Chiefs triumphantly emerged with silver from the annual Prince George Aboriginal Youth Hockey Championships over Easter weekend.
“They had a blast,” said coach Brody Jack, who coached with Victor Mowatt and Barry Heit. “I’m pretty sure [the other teams] figured they were going to walk all over Hazelton but these kids worked hard and did their best.”
And that best ended with silver at the annual tournament – a feat for a team that hadn’t practised as a full squad before.
The Hazelton-based team picked up players – three from Terrace, two from Fort St. John and a goalie from Calgary – with roots in the Hazelton area to compete in the tournament.
But because the Hazelton arena is shut down – “basically condemned,” said Jack – the team didn’t get to hit the ice together until the tournament.
But no matter.
“It was almost right off the bat. You’d think they’d have been practising together for a long time, just the way it gelled,” said Jack of the team chemistry.
The tournament was a welcome reward for a team that worked hard all year but had some hardships.
“For us in Hazelton, we had a rough year. Didn’t really win any games,” said Jack. “I think as soon as I told the kids we had a goalie, that was a win right there.
That’s right, the team had been playing the year without a consistent goalie – taking turns setting up between the posts.
But with a keeper on lock from Calgary for the tournament, the team could focus their efforts on the players’ preferred roles.
And that proved to work well for the team, winning three out of five games, the only two losses coming from a strong Buckly House Bears team from Prince George who beat them during the round robin and again during the final.
“Our first game they were a little shaky but they came together and from there on it was just play hard and have fun,” said Jack.
The Chiefs saw a comeback 4-3 win in game one, with the second game a back-and-forth 10-7, and then a character building 19-2 loss to the Bears. But the team didn’t let the loss get them down and the next day came back to win against PG’s Grassy Bay 7-5.
With that win they made it into the finals, met Buckly House again and came home with silver after an 8-0 loss.
“They didn’t know what to expect from all of these teams,” he said. “The kids had fun and never got down about anything, kept their cool and stayed together as a team.”
The team knows it faces a battle next year – they’ll need to practise and play on ice that isn’t in Hazelton until a new arena is completed, and will likely be needing to connect with other communities to get ice time – but spirits are strong after ending the season on a high note with silver at their last tournament.
“They had fun and that’s what counts,” said Jack. “The first thing they said after was, ‘can’t wait to do this again next year.’”