UXBRIDGE: The 10-person team that left Uxbridge to head to Weagamow in Northern Ontario - 1,750 kilometres north of Uxbridge - to spread hope through hockey has returned home safely.
The objective of the trip, which involved a number of past and present Uxbridge SS hockey players was to bring hope to this remote First Nations community that has suffered deeply from poverty, addiction and suicide.
Weagamow, Oji-Cree for Round Lake (also known as North Caribou Lake First Nation), has about 750 residents (and 900 total in their band) and is part of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation comprising some 45 communities. Their treaty area makes up about one-third of the province of Ontario. The team took equipment generously donated by the Uxbridge community to outfit some 45 aspiring hockey players, with the idea of hosting daily hockey clinics ending with a community tournament at the newly built arena in the community.
Among those taking part in the trip were Uxbridge Bruins centre Tim ‘Honey Badger’ Bierema, current Uxbridge Tigers team captain Jeff Wilson as well as former Tigers Adam Cranley, Ryan Lavrench, Josh Lubbock, Ryan Noakes and Tavis Smith. USS Tigers Head Coach Don Simmonds, Jennifer Wilson and Mary Lue Mahaffey, former sports director for the Alberta Aboriginal community, also took part in the trip.
"A huge thing that happened was how easily we could see that the hockey was truly bringing hope for the kids and also the elders of the community," Mr. Bierema said. "One man who has had addictions in his past came to us pouring his heart out, thanking us for giving his kids an outlet to escape from some of the things that go on in the community that he and many other of the older people in the community had previously been involved with. He reiterated that to the point he and our team were almost in tears just from the overwhelming amount of emotion."
The team helped open their brand new arena, a modern facility that had not been publicly used until the visitors from Uxbridge arrived. The ice was natural and there was no zamboni, meaning that it had to be flooded and scraped by hand.
The team initially planned for 45 children to take part in hockey skills clinics throughout the week, but over 120 young people registered. As a result, a clinic for first time skaters was added, and many children who had never skated were, in just a few short hours, skating on their own.
The week culminated with a special six-game tournament with the kids, who were surprised with new team sweaters and new socks. Tiger team members acted as the coaches and had a wonderful time with families watching their children play hockey for the very first time.
"I will take away from this experience, the smiles and the comments from the kids," said Mr. Lavrench. "Kids were saying that this was the best experience of their lives and that they wanted us to come back as soon as possible. Also, I will take away the stories the kids had, and the horrific things some have gone through and the hardships they endure, but still showed up every day for hockey camp with us (some walking one hour in -50 degree weather) and smiling the whole time, having fun and wanting to spend as much time with us as possible."
At the conclusion of the tournament, an awards ceremony was held, with Chief Jowan in attendance. Each participant received a medal, a team photo and a hockey bible, and eight players were chosen for most sportsmanlike and most improved trophies. Chief Jowan was presented with a signed USS Tigers jersey during the ceremony.
With over 120 kids skating, and on average two caregivers coming to the arena at some point during the week for each child, the team was able to engage some 350 people, or half the community. It was a great success for all involved.
"We went up there to teach but in the end, I think I was the one being taught and learning the most from these kids and the community," Mr. Lavrench told The Standard.
The team also donated a skate sharpener to the community, and Jeff Wilson trained three men to operate the machine enabling the community to sharpen their own skates rather than send them to Sioux Lookout or Thunder Bay for sharpening, as had been done in the past.
The team was wonderfully accepted by the community and given full access to the arena as well as the Band Council facilities. The team also had the opportunity to meet a 114-year-old woman who lives out in the woods. According to Coach Simmonds, the team was very moved by this, and gave her a shawl as a gift, but she was even more impressed with the Uxbridge Tigers puck.
The freezing temperatures did not affect the warm response, and in a community dinner, the team was invited back by Chief Jowan. One of their coaches said "tomorrow is not goodbye, its ‘we’ll see you again.’"
Although their time in Weagamow was short, those who took part in the trip will remember the lessons learned for the rest of their lives.
"It was an experience that can’t be taught in school, it’s something that you can only completely learn and understand by doing it," said Mr. Lubbock. "I’ll remember this experience and what I took from it for the rest of my life and this all couldn’t have happened without Coach Simmonds there to lead the way."
The entire community should be deeply proud of these young men of Uxbridge, seeing them sacrifice their time and use their hockey talent; seeing them lead such and ambitious program, and tenderly helping the eager young people with such care and concern.
The team will now decide if they will make this an annual event, and may try and obtain more equipment to send in a shipment for those who were not able to be outfitted.
The team is still in need of some funding for air transport costs, so if you haven’t participated and would like to help, you can make a cheque payable to Uxbridge Baptist Church and place it in an envelope marked "Hope Through Hockey" (donations over $25 will be receipted for tax purposes):
Uxbridge Baptist Church
"Hope Through Hockey"
231 Brock St. West, Uxbridge, ON
Courtney, the Tigers’ manager, can be reached at 905-852-2333 to answer any further questions about how members of the community can contribute to this great cause.