It was a short competitive season for the Whitehorse Wolverines, but a profitable one.
In their only tournament of the season, the Tke’mlups Junior All Native Little NHL Hockey Tournament, the local First Nations atom development team went undefeated on their way to gold last weekend in Kamloops, BC.
“We had a pretty balanced squad – for atom age, we had a good team,” said Wolverines head coach Randy Merkel. “The kids really came together well. These are the rewards you get from coaching, when kids gel like that.
“Everything went so smoothly right from the get-go. They played together as a team, rose up and really built a lot of character. It was very good for the Wolverines program.”
The Wolverines took the title with a 6-4 win over the home team Kamloops Indian Band in the finals, coming back from being down 4-3 at the start of the third period.
Scoring both the tying and game winning goals was Jonas Leas, who led his team in scoring at the tournament with nine goals and four assists. Teammate Jesse McCuaig, who finished the tournament with eight goals and two assists, also scored twice in the final.
“Jesse and Jonas were probably our strongest forwards,” said Merkel. “Another kid that played really well – played way higher than his level – was Kailem Letto. He got one of the game stars in one of the games and it just meant everything to him.
“He rose to the occasion.”
Also scoring in the final for the Wolverines were Niall Lawri and Jedrick Dendys, while Letto and Leas had assists.
The Wolverines arrived in the finals with an 8-4 win over Okanagan Nation, with hat tricks from Leas and McCuaig, plus a pair of goals and an assist from Matthew Butler. Although starting at 7:30 a.m., energy levels among his team were rather evident to Merkel before the start of the semifinal.
“We went to the rink and the kids plugged in their iPods and the whole team was singing AC/DC – like TNT and all that,” he said. “That’s how you win right there: the camaraderie. It’s really special when a team comes together like that.”
Not surprisingly, Leas was named to the tournament’s All Star team, but joining him on the list was Wolverines winger Jake Wawai, with one goal and three assists in Kamloops.
“The tournament organizers saw something special in Jake that they liked,” said Merkel. “At this age, getting recognition is great.”
Formed in 2008, the past two seasons have just been the initial steps of a long-term plan for First Nations hockey in the territory. Team executives are considering changing the Wolverines from atom to peewee next season with the long-term goal of having a team to represent the Yukon at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships.
“We’ll probably move up to peewee next year because we’re moving up with the team,” said Merkel. “That’s been the plan since Day 1. We’ve never had our own team (from the Yukon).”
Usually Yukon players would try out for spots on Team BC to play at the Aboriginal Hockey Championships. With BC failing to send teams to next month’s nationals in Ottawa, two local goalies have been drafted to play on NWT teams. Whitehorse’s Teneesha Merkel has agreed to play on NWT female team while Dawson City’s Waylin Nagano has signed up to play for the NWT midget boys’ team.
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