The Canada Games Centre in Whitehorse was bustling with excitement on the afternoon of July 29 as NHL star Ryan Nugent-Hopkins joined the 2022 Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) Centre Ice Hockey Camp.
The longtime player and alternate captain for the Edmonton Oilers gave out prizes during the closing ceremony of the summer skills clinic, which ran July 26 to 29. The camp was presented by CYFN under the leadership of Grand Chief Peter Johnston.
Ninety hockey players aged five to 18 trained on and off the ice with a roster of coaches that included NHL alumni Arron Asham, Andrew Antsanen, John Chabot and his son, Kyle Chabot, who also played high-level hockey. Other guest instructors, trainers and speakers included Mike Diabo, Ken Anderson, Reg McGinty and Gavin McKenna.
“It really was an amazing team. We all put our hands in the pot and made a great soup,” said Johnston.
Participants were provided with a catered lunch daily and took part in dryland training, leadership development seminars, fitness and nutrition sessions. Every kid who registered was given their own jersey to take home, according to Johnston. They also listened to motivational talks from “hockey role models” every day.
Johnston said he wanted to make this a “top-tier experience” for every player who signed up.
“I’m a huge hockey fan. I spend hours and hours on the ice with my kids. It just made sense to try to make this happen in a big way,” he said.
Johnston says his style of leadership involves “building enough momentum to pull everyone along in a way that benefits everyone.”
“When people are a part of something, everyone benefits, even though we might not see those benefits until later,” he said.
This year, he partnered with the Yukon First Nations Education Directorate.
“The first meal they provided was like Christmas dinner,” said Johnston. “To me, this epitomizes what it means to be ‘together today for our children tomorrow.’ Why not? Why can’t we offer the younger generation the best we can do?”
Offering the best this year meant flying Nugent-Hopkins into Whitehorse to participate in the final day of camp. According to Johnston, he’s the highest NHL profile ever brought to the Yukon and registration soared from 37 to 90 overnight when it was announced he’d be attending.
“This was the cherry on top an already delicious sundae,” Johnston said.
His 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter both play minor hockey and participated in the camp. He said they were “elated” to join their father in picking up Nugent-Hopkins from the airport for his 24-hour stretch in the territory.
Johnston believes in the value of introducing youth to high-profile hockey players.
“We all get our juice out of meeting people like that and seeing they’re regular guys, just like us. They like to joke and goof around.”
This was Nugent-Hopkins’s first time in the Yukon. His favourite part of the experience was “letting the kids be kids and joining in on the fun.”
He enjoyed interacting with all the young players and seeing “so much passion for hockey [in Whitehorse]”.
“It’s been a lot of fun and so nice coming up north to different communities,” he said.
Nugent-Hopkins’ special guest appearance set the bar high for next year, according to Johnston. He said he couldn’t have done it without Devlin Bradford, who coordinated the administration component of the camp. Their shared goal was to bring everyone together and give back to the community.
Part of the camp’s mandate is to remove all barriers and support everyone who wants to come, whether they can afford it or not. Funding for some players was administered by CYFN through Jordan’s Principle, which ensures First Nations children receive the services they need.
“We’re not here to make money; we’re here to give back,” Johnston said.
This year, 16 bags of gear were donated from the Ottawa Senators through their relationship with John Chabot. CYFN opened a full dressing room of gear for anyone who needed it, free of charge.
“At the end of the day, we just want to get the kids into the game,” he said.
Cullen Thomas, 9, and Maverick Thomas, 6, attended the camp together this summer. They got into the game of hockey when they were five years old, according to their mother, but have both been skating since they were very young.
“Camp was so much fun,” said Maverick, who held up his autographed Nugent-Hopkins puck for his mom to see. “I got to learn how to slide faster.”
He said he can’t wait to register for Timbits hockey in the fall.
The best part about camp, according to his brother, was “getting to meet Hopkins and playing hockey with him and working on our drills.”
Contact Magan Carty at firstname.lastname@example.org