Ecko Kirk was one of the youngest players for the women’s pan-territorial minor hockey team, Team North, in 2017. Now she is one of the more advanced participants at this year’s Northwestel hockey school in Whitehorse from July 9 to 13.
The 15-year-old from Haines Junction has tried other sports, but nothing else ever stuck. “I never really found the same thing that I found in hockey,” she said. “It just kept me coming back.”
The camp is in its 16th year, and has brought youth together from across the territories. Some have flown in from as far as Inuvik, and others, like Kirk, are a little closer to home. In the winter, her parents drive her to Whitehorse three times a week to play minor hockey with the Female Mustangs.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m a bit more experienced but … we’re all coming to play together, we’re just here to have fun with NHL players who are teaching us a lot of stuff,” said Kirk, who’s attending the hockey school for the first time. “It’s really awesome.”
Head instructor Joe Martin has been with the camp since the beginning. He’s seen participants grow up and go on to play junior hockey in the B.C. minor league as well as at the university level and for Team North. Some players have returned as youth leaders, to share their love of the sport.
For some participants, being on the ice is a brand new experience.
“I think there’s 15 kids here from Old Crow, not a lot of them had hockey equipment,” he said.
“(Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief) Peter Johnston went down to Canadian Tire and maxed out his credit card to get everyone hockey equipment.”
Throughout the week 120 Indigenous youth have been strapping on their skates and hitting the ice with several notable athletes. Troy Stecher, Waycee Rabbit and Arron Asham are just a few of the people who have given their time to teach the kids how to play the game.
Asham has a 15-year career in the NHL under his belt. Originally from Portage la Prairie, Man., he now lives in New York and works with the Islanders running youth hockey games and camps.
“I could never really afford to do these types of camps when I was young, so I’m sure these kids are pretty excited,” said Asham.
Asham learned to skate on an outdoor rink when he was three or four.
“My dad used to make a rink for me in the back and I started there. I’m sure a lot of these kids do the same thing,” he said.
He’s been teaching things like how to hold a stick, striding, and shooting drills. Some youth have only been skating for a few years, and others are “really talented kids.” One youth could barely skate, he said, and now he’s getting his stride down.
As a Metis player himself, Asham also wants to be a good role model.
“(I want to) just tell them that it’s possible. If you guys put your mind to it and do good in school and come here and train, anyone can do it,” he said.
“As long as they’re out here having fun, smiling, that’s the most important thing.”
Asham has been to Whitehorse on several occasions with the Indigenous NHL alumni tours, and said this won’t be his last visit.
“Everytime I come up here it’s hard to leave. I love Whitehorse, I love the Yukon, so hopefully I’ll be back soon.”
Kirk plans to keep training and see how far it will take her. She’s hoping to move down south and play with a major midget team in B.C.
While some Team North players have aged out of hockey school, Kirk is using her time at camp to keep getting better at the sport that keeps her coming back every season. She didn’t get called up to play on Team North this year, but she’s hoping she’ll get another shot in 2019.
She thinks more Indigenous youth should consider coming to camp.
“We all come from smaller communities…. There’s not always a lot for youth, especially you know just opportunities for them to keep them safe and active,” she said.
“If you get a chance to just do it, it’s a great opportunity.”
Contact Kallan Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org