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Local players shine at 50th Little NHL Tournament

Madison Maness is no stranger to hockey, but this past week was extra special for the Aamjiwnaang youngster.

Maness, 11, who plays locally for the Mooretown Lady Flags, was among thousands of Indigenous youth who took to the ice for the 50th Anniversary of the Little NHL Tournament in Markham, ON.

“It was fun,” said Maness, who got to spend some one-on-one time with dad Jamie Maness, who serves as the Little NHL’s acting Vice President — working behind the scenes to stage one of the largest youth hockey tournaments in Canada.

“Back in the day, a lot of First Nation kids weren’t even allowed to play hockey,” said Maness, pointing to the inaugural Little NHL tournament launched in 1971, to give Indigenous youth an event to call their own. The tournament has grown from 17 teams and 200 players that first year, to a record 245 teams and more than 4,000 players today — including the highest number of female skaters in its history.

Aamjiwnaang First Nation U13, Little NHL 2024. Submitted photo

“I scored, and did some body checking,” Madison Maness said with a laugh; she had no trouble keeping up with her U13 all-boys team, one of three teams representing Aamjiwnaang at the tournament.

That’s in addition to a number of Indigenous youth from across Lambton County, playing for teams ranging in age from U7 to U18, including Wiikwemkoong, M’Chigeeng, Six Nations, Kettle Point, CMO United (Chippewas-Muncey-Oneida), Bkejwanong, and Nipissing.

“If we don’t have a competitive team, our players can get picked up by other teams,” Maness explained.

Players like Noal Grondin, who joined fellow Lambton Jr. Sting AAA U14 teammates Kai Tope and Ryder Doxtator to help win gold with the CMO United U15 B (Competitive) team.

Lambton Jr. Sting AAA U14 teammates Ryder Doxtator, Kai Tope and Noal Grondin won gold at the 2024 Little NHL Tournament, for the CMO United U15 B team. Submitted photo

I’ve been playing in this tournament since I could barely skate — first, for my home community of Aamjiwnaang where my dad was the coach and my mom was the manager,” said Grondin, who eventually moved up to the competitive division with Walpole Island and CMO.

“This tournament means a lot to my family and I’m grateful for the opportunity to play in a tourney that brings a lot of the First Nation communities together," he added.

“Hockey and lacrosse are good medicine for our people and me, and I’m thankful for the gifts I’ve been given.”

This year’s theme was “Honouring Our Water,” calling attention to the vital importance of water stewardship and protection.

“Celebrating its 50th year, the Little NHL continues to be an important event for nurturing self-esteem, sportsmanship, and unity among First Nations youth in Ontario,” the  Ontario First Nations Young Peoples Council (OFNYPC) said in a statement. “We commend the 10,000 players, families, and community members gathered for this milestone event. Your presence embodies the resilience and spirit of our communities.”

For Jamie and Madison, their week together was about so much more than a game.

Jamie and Madison Maness at the Little NHL 2024 Gala. Submitted photo

“We spent time at the Hockey Hall of Fame, with the Stanley Cup; we had dinner with the Mayor of Markham,” Jamie said Friday after the tournament wrapped up and the pair headed to the CN Tower for a tour. “But more importantly, Maddy got to play with her people — with her community.”

As for next year’s tournament, Madison is already looking forward to it, with a new goal in mind.

“I want to enter an all-girls team.”

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