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Little Native Hockey League hits the ice after three-year hiatus

More than 2,400 youth representing over 40 First Nations set to take part in Ontario's largest Indigenous hockey tournament
More than 2,400 First Nations children and youth will participate in the 49th annual Little Native Hockey League tournament March 12-16 in Mississauga, Ont.

The Little Native Hockey League tournament was “bigger than Christmas” for Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod, who played for his First Nation in Ontario’s largest Indigenous hockey tournament throughout much of his childhood, beginning with the inaugural edition of the tournament — known widely as the Little NHL — on Manitoulin Island back in 1971.     

“I remember as a kid not having a lot of the best equipment — but when you had that one good hockey stick that you would save all year, you would use the cracked sticks and keep the good one for this tournament on the March break,” recalled McLeod. “It meant a lot to the kids going to be part of this. It was huge.

"It was one of the biggest events in my childhood growing up to be part of that.”

Five decades later, McLeod’s community has been tapped as the host First Nation for the 49th annual Little NHL tournament, which will see 184 teams and over 2,400 Indigenous youth representing more than 40 First Nations across Ontario compete during the four-day event in Mississauga, Ont. 

The tournament, taking place March 12-16, is the first to be held since 2020 due to public health measures arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.   

“It’s been unfortunate that we’ve had to miss the last three years, but we are all excited to get back in the arena and see some familiar faces and watch the kids play,” said McLeod. “It’s pretty surreal and exciting that we’re on the cusp of starting this tournament again.”

The hockey tournament, McLeod says, is an important event for Indigenous communities right across the province.  

“It’s about pride, it’s about kinship, it’s about friendly competition — but more importantly, it’s being accepted for who you are as an Indigenous youth,” he said. 

Having played minor hockey throughout his childhood, McLeod says mainstream sports were not a very welcoming place for Indigenous kids when he was growing up. 

“When you’re only one or two Indigenous kids in a room full of non-Indigenous kids, you don’t feel like it’s a welcoming place, and given the time and the atmosphere of growing up, it was a great sport to forget all those things,” said McLeod. “But in the mainstream leagues there was always a constant reminder of the racism, whether you were subjected to that on the ice or the dressing room.

“This tournament came out of those conditions — it was less about hockey and more about having a space for Indigenous kids to feel welcome, to feel like they can be part of the game, to really have a safe environment for them to just be kids, and that’s what created this tournament back in 1971.”

McLeod says one of things that First Nations people found solace in amid ongoing oppression in Canadian society was playing the game of hockey.  

“It was an escape for some of the conditions and things that we were going through, whether it be residential schools or racism, segregation, oppression and all these things — hockey was one thing that we were good at,” he said. “We took some pleasure in finding a place where we could forget about life for a while and really enjoy the competitive sport of hockey.”

The event has grown since the very first Little NHL tournament on Manitoulin Island where 17 teams and 200 players from Ontario First Nations took part. For many, it’s a March break tradition that’s been passed down generation after generation as the tournament grew in both participation and fan support throughout the years.     

“There’s a lot my age that have played in those early days that have grandchildren now that are playing,” said McLeod. “There’s a lot of pride there, a lot of family-oriented atmosphere and excitement that goes on at these tournaments.” 

The opening ceremony for this year’s Little NHL tournament takes place Sunday, March 12 at Paramount Fine Foods Centre with a National Hockey League alumni game and an Indigenous National Hockey League alumni autograph session following the kick-off festivities.  

“I can’t divulge too much about the opening ceremony, but it’s going to be a spectacular show, and I think for any non-Indigenous or Indigenous people that attend — everybody’s welcome — you’re going to be in for a real treat,” McLeod said. 

More information on the tournament can be found on the Little NHL Facebook page and website

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James Hopkin

About the Author: James Hopkin

James Hopkin is a reporter for SooToday in Sault Ste. Marie
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