Pilot Project brings new inclusive sport opportunities for Alberta First Nations youth

NHL street rink demonstration at the Youth Tee Pee Summit held Aug. 25 in St Albert. Photo by Kinnukana.

 by Kinnukana, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter 

(ANNews) – On August 25, 2023, the First Nations Health Consortium (Consortium), in partnership with NHL Street, HEROs Hockey, Rocks and Rings, and Rock Solid Productions Inc. officially launched a new pilot project at the annual Youth Tee Pee Summit in St Albert, Alberta. The pilot project focuses on providing two programs: NHL Street Hockey and Egg Farmers Rocks & Rings Floor Curling to First Nations children and youth across Alberta, with the goal of providing fun and healthy physical activities. Rob Kerr, Sport Advocate and Consortium organizer says that “people are excited about this!  Sport recreation is right there with mental health, which is right in there with education, which is right in there with regular health, our health, and we need to be active.”

Sport Advocate and Consortium organizer Robb Kerr. Photo by Kinnukana.

Traditionally, Indigenous peoples led healthy, active lifestyles that included daily activities such as hunting, fishing, food gathering and preparation. These activities helped Indigenous peoples maintain physical strength, fitness and health throughout all life stages from childhood to old age. Although these types of activities are still practiced in communities, many First Nations children today have become less physically active. The loss of traditional lifestyles has gone hand-in-hand with a decrease in physical activity and an increase in health problems that were unheard of in the past, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, addictions and substance abuse. There is also a high incidence of poor mental wellness and youth suicides. Research shows that physical activity is associated with better overall health, including better mental health. These new sport programs will provide more opportunities for First Nations children and youth to participate in physical activities in their communities in order to address these serious health issues.

The new pilot project will provide First Nations youth with an opportunity to become volunteer leaders in their communities. Youth Leader Volunteers, with the assistance of leadership support, will establish and deliver one and/or both of the new programs available: NHL Street Hockey and Rocks & Rings Floor Curling. Kevin Hodgson, Executive Director HEROS Hockey and 2021 NHL Willie O’Ree Award Winner, inspired the youth at the summit, and said, “Young people in this room, we can’t do this without you. This program is built to allow you to show the leaders that you could be. We know you can’t be leaders without something to lead. This is your chance to take this back to your community, be those leaders and we will be there to support you and assist you. We are so excited to be able to work with you.”

One of the programs that youth will have the opportunity to lead is NHL Street. This is a new street hockey league launched by the National Hockey League (NHL). The league is designed to provide kids and their families with the best of what youth sports can be: having fun, staying active, making friends, and creating great memories. The NHL Street program aims at breaking down barriers of accessibility and affordability. It is designed to appeal to today’s kids and their families with low-cost, low-pressure, and culturally relevant programming.

Abbie Damley and Greyden Yee Louison. Photo by Kinnukana.

The other program that will be made available to First Nations communities is the Egg Farmers Rocks & Rings program. It is presented by Curling Canada and is Canada’s acclaimed elementary school program that connects students to the Olympic sport of curling and the Paralympic sport of wheelchair curling. Rocks & Rings brings curling into schools with interactive physical education programs and classroom resources. Using FloorCurl custom curling equipment designed for use in gyms, the program gets students curling right in the school with no ice required. The equipment and programming also includes an introduction to wheelchair curling for a truly inclusive experience.

Abbie Damley, Director of Operations, Egg Farmers Rocks & Rings presented to the youth at the launch and stated, “The great thing about Rocks & Rings is that we can engage people of all ages and of all abilities and we can put them together in one game. We reach kids who are 3-4 years old, but we also deal with 55 plus crowds. We engage families and persons with disabilities.”

Greydon Yee Louison, a Saskatchewan First Nations Curler and Partner at UnitedWeCurl also spoke at the launch.  Greydon started curling at the age of eight years old and has been curling for the past fifteen years.  When he started, he struggled to throw the rock and had to use two hands and still couldn’t get it over the hog line, but he liked to sweep.  At the end of his first year of curling, he was finally able to get over the hog line.  It was a huge accomplishment for him, and he wanted to keep going to see what more he can do.

Greydon’s interest in curling also led him to an opportunity to create a First Nations designed curling broom.  When he was at a professional event in Yorkton, he had the opportunity to meet Erin Flowers from Goldline Curling while purchasing new shoes. They chatted and shared contact information. A year later she contacted him to see if he would like to design a unique First Nations broom.  Erin wanted a curler with a First Nations background to make the design. Greydon’s broom design has symbols for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, an eagle and a circle, feather, peace pipe, sweet grass, and he added the number 16 in honour of his grandfather who had past away.  It means a lot for him to curl with it. Other people always ask him questions about it, and it allows him the chance to share his First Nations background with them.

Former Oilers Captain and Stanley Cup Champion ’11 Andrew Ference. Photo by Kinnukana.

The youth at the summit had the opportunity to try out the new programs and meet Andrew Ference, NHL Street, NHL Alumni, Former Oilers Captain, and Stanley Cup Champion ’11 winner.  Andrew believes that hockey should not be limited to the version that is played on the ice and that some of the best hockey memories come from off-ice play, with nothing more than a stick, a ball and open space.   The great thing about these new programs is that they will allow First Nation communities to participate in sports that don’t require ice rinks and families can participate together.

The Consortium will work with interested First Nations communities to implement this pilot project. The Consortium Sports and Recreation Coordinator will reach out to each First Nation regarding provided equipment, training, program outlines and expectations.  Interested First Nations can email [email protected] for more information.

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