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Aboriginal Hockey Championships “One of the Best Experiences of My Life”

By Ontario Minor Hockey Association, 06/26/24, 10:45AM EDT


Team Ontario won gold with handful of OMHA players

A handful of OMHA players recently celebrated a gold medal as part of Team Ontario at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships (NAHC) in Grand Prairie, Alberta.

Ethan Neller (York-Simcoe), Emerson Taylor (Peterborough) and Aidyn Urbach (York-Simcoe) were part of the U18 tournament that saw Team Ontario defeat Team Saskatchewan in the gold medal game.

While they each come from different areas of the province, the Games were a chance for players of Indigenous backgrounds to compete together.

“I had no knowledge of how big it actually was until I got invited onto the team,” said Urbach, who learned about the event from a teammate. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

After being identified by team staff, players were invited to regional tryouts across the province in March. The team was selected from there, with weekly Zoom meeting held to become familiar with each other as well as the expectations.

The group arrived in Alberta three days before the first games and it was the first time they were able to practice as a team, holding three on-ice sessions before puck drop.

While Neller (Métis) and Taylor (Curve Lake Ojibwa) were both veterans to the team, this was Urbach’s (Nuxalk Nation) first time as a member of Team Ontario.

“A lot of the guys told it me it was very high-paced and much different than U18 hockey. I didn’t know what to expect from that standpoint,” said Urbach. “It’s the best of the best from every province, so learning that, it was more getting your feet ready and finding your rhythm.”

Neller used his experience from past seasons to learn the importance of team building.

“Chemistry is super important. Each year there are guys leaving and guys coming in, so you’re with a different team,” said Neller. “The guys that were there with me from the first year to the last year, this year, we’re pretty tight now. You really build good relationships for this tournament.”

“I had a bit more confidence coming into the tournament this year because I knew what I was up against and who I was going to be playing with,” echoed Taylor.

With this being his third year, Neller was named team captain. He describes his leadership style as leading by example and being a positive motivator in the dressing room.

“I was very proud to be trusted with leading the team both on and off the ice, as well as representing Ontario,” said Neller. “Being a veteran on the team, I felt I was experienced and ready to step into the role. Being captain of the team and winning a gold medal has been one of my greatest accomplishments that I will remember forever.”

The team used their time off the ice to bond, working through an escape room and spending time at the mall attached to the hotel. They would warm up with games of spikeball and ‘sewer’ (a soccer keep-up game), even playing against other teams.

The NAHC allowed for players of several Indigenous backgrounds to come together through hockey. While each peoples may have their own customs and cultures, smudging was a common thread that was seen throughout the weeklong tournament.

Smudging is a cultural ceremony practiced by a wide variety of Indigenous peoples to purify or cleanse an area or a person.

Urbach, also a lacrosse player, was introduced to smudging by one of the staff members from the Ontario girls’ team and how it ties into that game as well.

“Learning a new thing about my culture and knowing this is what they used to do,” said Urbach. “I took that deeply because I love lacrosse too but it’s also cool engaging with my own aspect and history.”

For Taylor, who also attends yearly Powwows, getting to know about his teammates was something that stood out to him.

“The team bonding and a lot of the cultural backgrounds,” said Taylor. “Learning the history of the tournament and seeing all the different players and where they come from.”

This was Neller’s last go-around as a part of Team Ontario. He simply puts it: “It felt good to end it off on a win, for sure.”

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