Hockey nights in Arviat

Sports take on a special importance in the North

At five o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, the street outside of my office window started to fill with idling vehicles. They waited patiently while others joined them, trucks and SUVs and ATVs and snowmobiles, flying flags and with the emergency flashers on. When the Hamlet’s fire truck pulled out of the garage the parade was officially underway.

The parade was celebrating the end of a very successful hockey season in Nunavut, in which the Arviat men’s hockey team won first place at both the John Lindell Memorial Cup and Avataq Cup tournaments, two of the biggest hockey tournaments in the region. In between those two tournaments, the Arviat Midgets team took bronze in the Nunavut Territorial Midget Hockey Championship, held right here at home in Arviat.

Two gold medals and a bronze for Arviat teams is quite the achievement, especially considering our local arena (the King Arena, part of the John Ollie Complex) was closed for repairs and upgrades for almost two years, severely limiting the team’s practice time and their experience playing together. It’s an achievement that the whole community takes pride in.

It’s hard to overstate the popularity of hockey here in Arviat. Like much of Canada, almost everybody has their favourite teams and players, and both playing hockey and watching it are popular pastimes. But more than that, people identify with the sport to a degree not often seen down south, going so far as to place hand-made team logos on hand-made winter jackets (and summer jackets, and rain jackets, and so on). Kids will even use their jersey numbers in their names, and when I was substituting at the high school, it wasn’t uncommon to see students signing their tests as “John S. #17”, for example.

The challenges of sport and recreation

Beyond the simple enjoyment of the game and community pride in the home team, hockey and other sports have an important role to play in community life in towns like Arviat. We’re small, we’re isolated, and the weather can keep people indoors for what seems like months at a time. Like small towns everywhere one of the biggest challenges is simply finding things for kids to do, and sports offer some structured activity. Organized sports provide recreation and physical activities for adults and youth alike, and where pickup games can be a source of entertainment in these quiet northern towns, a tournament like the John Lindell Memorial Cup can be the event that the community looks forward to for weeks and talks about long after it’s finished.

But there are a lot of challenges involved in running recreation and sports programs in Arviat, including lack of infrastructure, lack of equipment, and the logistics of organizing practices, games, and tournaments. Imagine the expense involved in holding a tournament in a town with no road access where hotel rooms cost $225/night (when they are available) and inter-community flights can be upwards of $1,000, and you’ll have some idea of the challenges faced by organizers and athletes.

Add to that the fact that there are no Wal-Marts, Canadian Tires or Sport-Cheks where you can purchase gear and equipment. All of it must be ordered from the south and shipped up by air cargo or by sealift in the summer, significantly increasing the expense and difficulty of recreational activities.

Finding dedicated coaches, organizers, and volunteers can be a challenge as well. Coaches often tend to be teachers or other professionals who already have heavy work loads, and may be limited in the amount of time they can commit to extracurricular activities. And the high turnover rate among staff in those positions means that a soccer or hockey team could run efficiently for several years, and then suddenly find themselves without a coach and unable to continue when the individual who had been committed to the team moves on.

Despite the small population and the challenges of isolation, infrastructure, and manpower, organized sports happen right across the territory, including hockey, softball, soccer, volleyball, and badminton. Coaches and organizers put in thousands of volunteer hours, and organizers, communities, agencies, and private companies all contribute to the success of sport and recreation by offering places for teams to stay, discounts on airfare, providing meals, donating equipment, and generally working together to make games and tournaments happen.

The need for sport and recreation

Just as it’s hard to overstate the popularity of hockey in Arviat, it’s also hard to overstate the importance of sports and recreation in Nunavut. In a territory with such a small, isolated population and huge proportion of youth, one of the major challenges that the territory is going to face in the coming years and decades is finding things for that population to do, both recreationally and professionally. Organized activities like sports are not only necessary for fun, physical activity and entertainment, but also have a role to play in fostering strong youth with discipline and motivation, engaging people to act as volunteers, coaches, and organizers, and building a volunteer base and a community spirit of cooperation, hard work and accomplishment that will be vital in the years to come.

A friend remarked to me a while ago that recreation was as important as job creation. As my job is economic development, I originally dismissed the idea, but the more I thought about it, the more I think he may be right. Jobs are vitally needed in Arviat, but economic development is only one aspect of what makes life satisfying and enjoyable, and without recreational activities outside of working hours, quality of life can suffer. And the traits and strengths that sport encourages – such as perseverance, hard work and cooperation – are necessary for achieving life goals or to build strong communities.

After all, a town needs a parade once in a while.

The views and opinions in this column are those of the author alone, and are not necessarily those of the Hamlet of Arviat, Government of Nunavut, any of its departments or agencies, or anybody else.

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