Hockey Night in Mississauga: Indigenous players hit the ice with the Little NHL

TVO.org talks to Little Native Hockey League president Marian Jacko about the growth of the annual tournament — and what the sport means to Indigenous youth
By Claude Sharma - Published on March 29, 2019
little league hockey players
A record 227 teams participated in this year's Little NHL tournament, up from 209 last year.

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Marian Jacko has an impressive resumé: lawyer, advocate, president of the Little Native Hockey League.

Children aged four to 18 come from First Nations communities across Ontario to compete in the annual tournament — of which Jacko has been president, a volunteer position, since 2018 — in Mississauga.

“The reason why this got started is because some of the teams were joining other tournaments, but they were facing racism,” said Jacko, who belongs to the Bear Clan and is from Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory, on Manatoulin Island.

The work neatly dovetails with what Jacko has been doing professionally for two decades: advocating for children and Indigenous people in Ontario. In 2016, she became the province’s Children’s Lawyer. An arm of the Ministry of the Attorney General, her office represents children in certain civil-litigation matters, including child protection and custody.

The Little NHL has grown by leaps and bounds since its founding in 1971. Only 17 teams played that year in Little Current, on Manitoulin Island. At the 2019 tournament, which took place earlier this month, 227 teams participated, up from 209 last year.

Jacko spoke to TVO.org about what the Little NHL means to her — and to First Nations communities across Ontario.

Why did you decide to take the role of president?

I was on the executive for the Little NHL for a few years leading up to becoming president. I was also the president for a girls’ hockey association in Mississauga. But prior to my new position, I’ve been always volunteering with the Little NHL, because both of my daughters play in it for Team Wiikwemkong.

What’s driving the growth of the Little NHL?

We are seeing growth in the younger age groups and in the girls’ divisions. Remember, this tournament is only for Ontario First Nations. Right now, it doesn’t include anyone outside Ontario. There have been requests over the years to have people from Quebec and from other provinces join the tournament. But when we had the strategic-planning session, it was made very clear to us that the original intent of this tournament was always for Ontario First Nations kids.

How do players and teams raise the funds needed to play in the tournament?

As soon as the tournament ends, the fundraising starts for the following year. We’ve tried, as an executive, to keep the costs of the tournament as low as possible. The fee is $600 per team. It’s not about making a profit off our communities; it’s really just to cover the costs and expenses. I know some of the communities will pay the registration fee for their teams. But, again, it depends on each community, and it depends on the resources that those individual communities have. Not every single community has the same resources.

What does the tournament mean to the players and families involved?

It’s a really a hallmark event for a lot of the communities and families. People wait until the Little NHL to actually take time off work to make a trip down south. Also, some don’t even see family members during the year until the Little NHL. That’s when they get to visit; that’s when they get caught up. Some of these people who volunteer and have children playing hockey are now in their 40s and 50s, and they grew up playing in the Little NHL. It’s also a time to celebrate and promote our youth, because the four pillars of the Little NHL are respect, sportsmanship, education, and citizenship.

How did the tournament go this year?

Overall, I would say that I’m happy with the number of teams that registered. I’m happy with the comments and feedback I’ve been receiving from children and families. I’m 100 per cent happy and satisfied with the way the tournament went — but, having said that, there are some areas we’re going to have to take a good, hard look at and see where things can be improved.

What do you hope to change for 2020?

We definitely are going to have to take a good look at some of the issues, in terms of eligibility. Who can protest a player’s eligibility, and what is the timeframe for that? Will there be a cost associated with it? There were a couple of teams that challenged the eligibility of a player or players on a team and suggested that they weren’t from an Ontario First Nation. Historically, there was a cost associated with any protest to a player or a team. The other thing is that we’re going to be sending out a post-event survey, because we want to hear from the communities, participants, and attendees so that we can try to improve where we can — and also to make it the best experience for all.

What makes the Little NHL so important to First Nations communities?

I have received so many messages telling me what the tournament has meant to children. They talk about the relationships formed, the friendships formed. They talk about some of the life lessons that children have learned through the game of hockey and also just being part of the community. The tournament is something that’s intangible — it’s a feeling of community spirit, and I think that would be why we need to continue hosting the event.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.​​​​​​​

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