It may be mid-summer but hockey is on the minds of dozens of Yukon youth this week in Whitehorse.
One hundred and twenty-four young players from across the territory are taking part in the Centre Ice Hockey Camp, a camp born during the pandemic and put on by the Council of Yukon First Nations.
“Today it’s about investing in our future, which is our youth,” said Peter Johnston, grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations. “This is our third year and the largest camp we’ve had yet.”
Today it’s about investing in our future which is our youth– Peter Johnston, grand chief Council of Yukon First Nations
One of the lead instructors this week is Rene Bourque. The Métis citizen took his game to the ultimate level, playing 12 seasons in the National Hockey League and representing Canada at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“I grew up in a predominantly Indigenous community as well so I know some of the situations these kids are living in with remote communities and not always having access to ice,” said Bourque. “It’s just a small way to give back and it makes my heart feel good.”
Bourque says while he is encouraged by the rise of the indigenous hockey players playing prominent roles more often these days in the NHL this week is about introducing kids to how special the game of hockey can be.
“These kids are just young, I want them to have fun and just play,” said Bourque. They’re not at that age where they need to take things seriously, it’s about learning some new skills and above all having fun.”
Johnston agrees and says it’s important for the kids to learn about healthy habits and good role models from a young age.
“This is the only way we’re going to fight things such as the opioid reality right now. We need to get the foundations built to help kids make the positive decisions and see the positive role models.”
One of those role models is Gavin McKenna. The 15-year-old was born and raised in Whitehorse and earlier this year made history by becoming the first Indigenous hockey player to be selected first overall in the Western Hockey League bantam draft.
In February at the Canada Winter Games, McKenna had the hockey world abuzz when he set the all-time tournament scoring record with 29 points in just six games.
“I’ve gotten a lot from the community, just so much support with everything I’ve done,” said McKenna. “I’ve been to these camps and benefited so I just thought I’d kind of give that back to the kids.”
McKenna says despite only being a few years older than some of the kids in the camp he enjoys being looked at as a role model.
“I have kids coming up to me and asking for autographs and what not,” said McKenna. “I used to be that kid asking the older guys so it’s definitely cool for sure.”
Akyra Calbery is just seven years old. She’s just learning to skate but already has improved and learned how to shoot.
“It’s just really fun.”
For other players like eight-year-old Aniston Jerome, who loves to skate, this is a chance to learn from players that have made it where he dreams of going, the NHL. “It’s been great,” said Jerome.
Johnston says as long as there is continued interest in the camp it will continue for the foreseeable future.