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Wings take flight in junior league, Northern Bands

Thursday April 3, 2014
Photos by Bryan Phelan

Wheeling the puck safely out of his end was just one of many ways Melvin Childforever contributed to a Final Four finish for the KI Native Wings at last month’s Northern Bands tournament in Dryden.
Photos by Bryan Phelan

Melvin Childforever, no. 8, towers above his KI Native Wings teammates during a timeout.
Photos by Bryan Phelan

Clinton Morris, Native Wings captain, keeps tabs on Harry Okeese of the Bushtown Jets during a 2014 Northern Bands semifinal. Guarding the front of the KI net are Reuben Anderson, left, and Sonny Hudson.
Bryan Phelan/Wawatay News

KI’s Reuben Anderson stickhandles past Joey Oshag of the Bushtown Jets. Anderson was in top form during March Break at the Northern Bands tournament, after playing 16 games this season in the Greater Metro Hockey League.

A temporary banner hangs outside the entrance: “Welcome Northern Bands Hockey Tournament.”

Nearby, attached to the front of the Dryden arena named for him, is a giant poster of the town’s greatest hockey player: “Proud Home of Chris Pronger.” It notes the awards Pronger, six foot six, won in a St. Louis Blues uniform as the NHL’s best defenceman and most valuable player. Later, he became a Stanley Cup champion as an Anaheim Duck and a two-time Olympic gold medalist for Canada. His career ended in 2011 due to concussion and eye injuries.

On the other side of the arena wall, another big defenceman is just now hitting his stride.
Melvin Childforever, 19, and his Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) Native Wings teammates are so far playing the mighty Kingfisher Lake Flyers to a 1-1 draw.

As time runs down and the play gets more frantic, Childforever stands out for his size, mobility and poise against the more experienced Flyers. At almost six foot five, he covers a swath of ice in the defensive zone with his long reach and stick, winning crucial battles for the puck. His head is up as he calmly stickhandles out of danger or quickly delivers a breakout pass. And when he rips a slapshot wide of the net at the other end, the boards thunder.

He plays a lot like a young Chris Pronger, in other words.

KI defeats the Kingfisher Lake 2-1 in a shootout, as Samson Beardy scores for the Native Wings and goaltender Craig McKay stops all the Flyer shooters.

It’s the fourth win of the tournament for KI, to go with just one loss.

KI hockey fans, some of them lining the end boards two and three deep for the Kingfisher game, haven’t had this much cheer about in more than a decade of March Break tournaments when First Nation teams from the far reaches of northwestern Ontario travel south to compete. Way back in 2002, the KI Posse won the B-side championship at the Northern First Nations Hockey Tournament in Sioux Lookout. There hasn’t been any notable success since for KI teams, including the Native Wings who played in Sioux Lookout in recent years.

This Native Wings team, however, is different.

“They’ve matured with their hockey skills and they seem more confident,” says Steven Chapman, back to coaching the team after a two-year break.

It helps that five of the KI players, including Childforever, skated this season at the Junior A level in the Toronto area Greater Metro Hockey League (GMHL).

“They seem to have more stamina, more energy, and they’re faster,” Chapman says of those players.

Northern Recruits

Childforever got his call to play in the GMHL from Joe Murphy, a first overall draft pick of the Detroit Red Wings in 1986 who played more than 700 NHL games. Along the way, he won a Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers.

Murphy served this season as coach and general manager of the Alliston Coyotes, an expansion team in the GMHL. The Coyotes and another GMHL franchise, the Shelburne Red Wings, share the same owner. Murphy asked Childforever to join Shelburne in late September.

“You’re going to learn a lot,” Murphy told him.

“I said ‘yes’ right away,” says Childforever, who until then had only played recreational hockey. “I wanted to learn more, (gain) experience. I want to reach a higher level.”

Murphy’s call had come based on a recommendation from Dean Beardy, a hockey scout from Sachigo Lake First Nation and recruiter for the Coyotes. He had seen Childforever play in a tournament in Bearskin Lake First Nation.

Two other KI players also landed in Shelburne through Beardy – Clinton Morris and Reuben Anderson, who started the season in Alliston but got traded to the Red Wings. Also moved from the Coyotes to Shelburne were more players recruited by Beardy from remote northern Ontario First Nations: Jake Bruce (Sachigo Lake), Terrence Semple (Kasabonika Lake), and Ethan Beardy and Kyle Mekanak (Bearskin Lake).

“I keep in touch with families and the team management,” says Beardy, the scout. “I got calls from the team like once a week to provide an update. If there was a problem, I knew about it.”

As a team, the Red Wings struggled on the ice, finishing last in the 20-team league with a record of three wins and 39 losses.

Just ahead of them in the standings were the Lefroy Wave, which partway into the season added its own pair of KI players, defenceman Sonny Hudson and forward Matthew Morris. Other Wave players included Gunther Fiddler and Brenden Mawakeesick of Sandy Lake First Nation.

Shelburne had entered the GMHL in 2010 as an all-Russian team, according to the league’s website, and this year’s edition of the Red Wings still featured mostly Russian players – 11 of them on the final roster – along with Russian coaches. Shelburne also had players from Ukraine, Slovakia and Kazakhstan.

“Sometimes the coaches would speak in Russian during our pre-game (talk); they’d barely say anything in English,” Clinton Morris recalls. He and other non-Russian Red Wings relied on plays being drawn on the coach’s dry-erase board or explanations from Russian teammates who spoke slightly better English than the coaches.

“It was a great experience to meet different kinds of people and play hockey with them,” Morris says. “They brought their European style of play to the team, which I’d never seen before” – a style with all the emphasis on offensive play, rather than defence, he says.

Morris had previously played Junior A hockey in both the GMHL, an independent league, and the Superior International Junior Hockey League (SIJHL), one of 10 regional Junior A leagues that form the Canadian Junior Hockey League. The SIJHL, which includes teams in Dryden and other northwestern Ontario towns, generally has more skilled and bigger players, according to Morris.

Still, with a 42-game regular season schedule, playoff games and up to five practices a week, plus dryland and weight training, Morris says his time in Shelburne greatly improved his skating and conditioning. He also switched from being a forward to a defenceman, a position he now prefers.

Childforever underwent a transformation too. “When I went down there, for the first two months (the play) was fast for me; like, REALLY fast,” he says. “I couldn’t do nothing. But by the third month, I got the hang of it. By the fourth month, I was already going up ahead, takin’ it … carrying the puck up.”

Off the ice, Childforever’s transition to urban living was eased by billeting at a family’s home with four other Red Wings, including Morris and Anderson. Ethan Beardy stayed at the same place and had a vehicle, so he provided his KI teammates with rides.

When Childforever got homesick and thought about returning north early, his mom Julie Anderson, niece Layda Ostaman, and other family members and friends from KI encouraged him to stay. “Be strong,” they’d say. “Believe in yourself.”

‘Just the Beginning’

Early in the Northern Bands tournament the KI Native Wings meet the Kasabonika Flames. Their junior season over, Shelburne teammates are now opponents in Dryden.

Dean Beardy and more casual fans watch Terrence Semple, the Kasabonika forward, race to the corner for the puck, chased by KI’s Childforever.

“Melvin comes in and looked like he was ready to splatter Terrence against the boards but Terrence saw him coming, so he turned,” Beardy says. “Melvin kinda slowed down. I had a good laugh at that one. I knew they weren’t gonna hurt each other.”

In Shelburne, Semple finished third in Red Wings scoring with 32 points in 27 games.

Childforever posted 14 points, including three goals.

“It’s really intense; it’s fun,” Childforever says of his junior experience, “and you gain strength – your body and your mind, in keeping focused.”

Beardy spots at least two more junior-aged players at the Northern Bands he thinks are ready now for the “fast and tough” action of the GMHL, and invites several other prospects to the league’s development camp this summer.

The GMHL is a “pay to play” league, notes Beardy. The community of KI, through its chief and council, sponsored their five players in the GMHL in 2013-14.

“The opportunity came and we helped answer the door for them,” says Darryl Sainnawap, KI deputy chief and a Native Wings player. “I figured it would be a good idea for them to be exposed to that type of hockey and to have the opportunity to be a prospect to scouts from other hockey leagues.

“Hockey teaches you a lot of things,” Sainnawap adds. “It teaches you about teamwork and staying healthy.”

After downing Kingfisher Lake, the Native Wings win again, 4-2 over the Sandy Lake Chiefs, to reach the Final Four of the 29-team Northern Bands tournament.

The KI junior players excel in their own ways. Clinton Morris aggressively clears pucks and opposition players from the front of his net; Matthew Morris always seems in the right position and is strong along the boards; Anderson buzzes around the puck everywhere, digging; Hudson provides reliable, stay-at-home defensive play; and Childforever quarterbacks waves of offensive rushes.

In KI’s semifinal against the Bushtown Jets from Eabametoong, it’s not enough. Childforever takes a wicked slash to the arm and misses some shifts, but comes back to finish the game in pain. KI loses 4-1 and Bushtown goes on to win the tournament.

Sainnawap, however, remains enthusiastic about the future of the younger Native Wings, most of them teammates since they were peewees in Little Bands tournaments.

“I believe this is only the beginning for them,” Sainnawap says. “I foresee bigger outcomes for them and for our community. I believe this is the beginning of a dynasty.”

Scouting Reports

In KI, meanwhile, “most of the town” encourages Childforever to play another season of junior hockey.

“A lot of people are proud of me,” he says. “I guess they know I can do something.”

Joe Murphy, the former NHLer, knows too. Filling in as Shelburne’s coach for a couple of days this past GMHL season, Murphy kept Childforever on the ice for almost an entire game – 50 out of 60 minutes, the defenceman guesses. “I just kept my legs moving. I only went off to get drinks of water.”

It’s one of the few games Shelburne won.

Beardy’s scouting report on Childforever rings true. “Workhorse,” Beardy writes. “A strong defensive defenceman. He has a good shot … (and) makes simple, smart plays consistently. Good leadership skills.”

And it sounds remarkably similar to a Hockey News scouting report on Pronger, still available online: “Can log huge amounts of ice time,” it reads in part. “Is an awesome one-on-one defender. He’s also an excellent power-play point man, due to a big shot and great hockey sense. Was born to lead.”

After the semifinal loss at the Northern Bands, in Pronger’s hometown, Childforever rubs his sore forearm in the lobby and talks about buying better elbow pads. When he leaves the rink, he passes under the image of Pronger in game action, high on the wall.

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