Special to the News
The members of a new Yukon hockey team will don their jerseys for the first time Oct. 27.
It’s been a year in the making for the Yukon Rivermen — a new Bantam Tier 1 team — but head coach Martin Lawrie is already anticipating growth in the league for next season.
“I think the quality of the hockey in the Yukon has been improving over the last several years and we’re starting to produce more good young players,” says Lawrie, namechecking Dylan Cozens, who plays for the Lethbridge Hurricanes. “So we’ve been looking at trying to create opportunities in the north to keep players in the north because some of the higher-end ones have kind of had to move down south to play at that higher competitive level.”
The obvious solution? Bring that higher competitive level up here.
It’s not as easy as it sounds though. Finding enough teams was no problem (B.C. Hockey already had a tier 1 pilot program going in the south Okanagan, and they were eager for the Yukon to join), but securing ice time was a real challenge.
“Ice is already at a premium,” Lawrie says. It took a year to arrange a 30-game schedule for the six tier 1 teams representing the Yukon, North West, East Kootenay, and the Okanagan.
Historically, another challenge has been the travel component.
Lawrie says a trip out for a weekend tournament could cost a Yukon team $16,000 to $20,000. As for getting teams to travel here, in the past it’s been tough to get B.C. Hockey to recognize that Whitehorse isn’t that far away.
“The Yukon is unique for sure, but it really isn’t that difficult to get to.… We’re only two hours away from most of the teams in B.C.,” he says. “We’ve spent the last several years showing that the Yukon is a legitimate hockey destination.”
Lawrie says the territory has a strong hockey community, with a great First Nations hockey tournament annually, strong women’s teams, and excellent leagues for old-timers and recreational players.
“This is a natural fit to what we’re seeing in the population here,” he says.
Additionally, he says hosting more games at home helps bring family into the equation for bantam-level players, who are 13 and 14 years old. Not only can they now invite aunts, uncles and grandparents to their games, the hope is that more developed players will be able to stay in the North and still compete at an advanced level.
“Not having to have a 14-year-old move away from home is a big benefit,” says Lawrie. “That’s probably the biggest comfort for a young man, is to be able to stay at home and stay at a school that he knows.”
Going into the weekend, Lawrie’s not looking to measure success in wins and losses. He wants to see his team go out, play hard, and prove they can play at a tier 1 level, both individually, and as a team.
“Our kids haven’t had the opportunities to play at this level in the past so it’s going to be challenging … but they’ll adjust and adapt quickly and continue to improve,” he says.
Lawrie says they kick off the season this weekend with a trio of games against stiff competition.
“The Thompson Blazers out of Kamloops (are) the strongest team in the league so we kind of jump into the deep end right off the bat,” he laughs.
All games take place at Takhini Arena and are free to the public. Games are scheduled for Friday at 6:30 pm., Saturday at 2:30 p.m., and Sunday at 11 a.m.
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