This should have been a big weekend for Manitoba's Keystone Junior Hockey League, a collection of mostly small-town teams made up largely of teenagers. The Arborg Ice Dawgs and the Norway House North Stars were fighting for the championship and fans had driven from all over the province to watch playoff games slated for Saturday and Sunday in Gimli, Man.
But the games weren't played. Instead, the season abruptly ended with a controversial forfeiture, allegations of racism and threats to expel the North Stars, who are owned by the Norway House Cree Nation. "Honestly, the league is beside itself," said KJHL president Rick Olson. "The sequence of how all this happened is kind of mind-boggling. … The racism issue should never have been brought up."
But many say the scandal has touched on simmering racial tensions within junior hockey and especially the seven-team KJHL, which includes two clubs based on first nations reserves and others in small farming towns. The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs denounced the KJHL last week, calling it discriminatory and alleging referees favour non-aboriginal teams. An investigation into the allegations has been launched by Hockey Manitoba, the organization that governs amateur hockey in the province.
Mr. Olson insisted racism is not prevalent and he said several players on many teams are aboriginal, including the league's top scorer, who plays for Arborg. "Honestly [the scandal]has gone sideways. They are talking about things that don't even relate to hockey. Racism is probably the last thing you'd ever hear from this league," Mr. Olson said.
However, there have been plenty of problems. Last season Arborg players had to be escorted by police from the Norway House arena after a playoff game and in January the KJHL put the North Stars on probation in part, the league said, because of abusive behaviour by its fans during home games. Last month, the league went farther and banned Norway House from hosting any more playoff games this season. All future Norway House home games were slated for Gimli, roughly 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg and 700 kilometres south of Norway House.
The ban came after a rough playoff game between the North Stars and the Selkirk Fishermen which included a brawl, more than 30 penalties and serious injuries to some players. At one point nine North Stars players were in the penalty box. Both teams allegedly made racist taunts and one North Stars official allegedly berated the referees for "only helping the white boys."
Many people connected with Norway House say racism has long been a part of junior hockey in the province and the recent allegations are just the latest examples. "I've been in minor hockey for years," said Langford Saunders, a member of the Norway House Cree Nation council and a governor of the North Stars. He said players from reserves regularly face epithets such as "sniffers" and other teams don't want to travel to the first nations community, even though Norway House covers the travel costs. "The don't want to come to our community. They don't want to come to an Indian reserve," he said.
When the North Stars made the finals against Arborg last month, Norway House Chief Ron Evans asked the KJHL to remove the ban on home games, arguing the club had made reforms including firing two coaches and dismissing the official who berated the referees. He and others recognized the team lacked discipline but he said changes had been made and Norway House's fans deserved to see their team in the championship. The other clubs voted to keep the ban.
Last week, Mr. Evans asked Hockey Manitoba to intervene. When the organization said it didn't have time to act, Mr. Evans announced on Friday that Norway House wouldn't go to Gimli for Games 3 and 4 of the series (Arborg won the first two games at its home rink). Instead he sent a bus to Arborg to bring the Ice Dawgs to Norway House. But Arborg headed to Gimli.
In an interview, Mr. Evans alleged the league kept the ban in place because some parents said they didn't want their sons travelling to the reserve, fearing it was too violent. That reflected the deep prejudice and unjustified fear among teams, he said. "It's an attack on our community."
When Norway House failed to show up in Gimli on Saturday, the league awarded the championship to Arborg, which heads to Saskatoon for the Western Canadian championships. "We were not hoping for this at all," said Ivan Gulay, president of the Ice Dawgs. "We wanted to play hockey." He added that he couldn't understand Norway House's complaints about racism. "I don't know where Norway House is coming from with that."
Norway House faces an immediate suspension for forfeiting the game and it could be kicked out of the league. A final decision won't come until Hockey Manitoba and the league review the issues later this month. The North Stars players aren't sure what happens next and none are happy with the outcome. "They wanted to win," said Mr. Saunders. "But they also wanted to play in front of their families."