Over 1,200 Cree and Algonquin kids were swept up in the excitement of the 28th Annual Minor Broomball Tournament in Val-d’Or October 17-20. Nearly every community in Eeyou Istchee was represented by both girls’ and boys’ teams ranging in age from four to 17.
“There were winners but I’d never say that there were losers,” said Charles Hester, Waskaganish’s director of culture, sports and leisure, and part of the Cree Regional Events and Entertainment (CREE) group that organized the tournament. “If you’re off the couch, off the Xbox, and playing sports, you’re a winner in my book regardless of whether you won a medal.”
Over the many years that Hester has been involved in youth sports, he’s noticed that broomball’s popularity is increasing – especially among the boys. Whereas the sport has long been popular among girls in the Cree Nation, about five years ago it was introduced to the male population.
“At first it was kind of slow,” recalled Hester, “some communities really loved it, some had a hard time selling it to their boys. Two years ago, none of my boys wanted to play. This year they loved it – they didn’t know how fun it was.”
Most people believe broomball originated in Canada in the early 1900s, with some accounts suggesting the sport was passed on from First Nations in Ontario’s Lake Simcoe region. Besides being played with brooms and a ball, it is very similar to hockey but with much less equipment required, it is a more affordable option.
“You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars,” Hester told the Nation. “That’s one reason it’s popular. As a parent, I have eight boys who all play hockey. I went to a sports store to get broomball equipment and told my wife for the money I spent it wouldn’t cover the cost of one hockey skate.”
Regional minor tournaments formerly combined both hockey and broomball, but with over 160 teams beginning to participate, it was decided to keep the hockey tournament in April and reserve October for broomball. This separation also means that children can choose to play both sports.
“We used to have a rule: if your kid played broomball, he couldn’t play hockey,” explained Hester. “Obviously, scheduling was [a concern] because there are games happening in different venues and we’re also concerned about the safety of the kids. We don’t want to tire them out, having to play five games a day.”
A few years after the James Bay Minor Hockey League was created to enable regular matches between Cree communities, a broomball league was started for girls only. This led to scheduling conflicts, as games occur on weekends when most of the boys have hockey games. Girls may also join the hockey league.
Whapmagoostui is the latest community to join the league, leaving only Ouje-Bougoumou without a team. While match-ups like Waskaganish versus Chisasibi have developed into friendly rivalries, it’s another experience entirely to journey to the city to play against teams the kids haven’t played before.
“What made the tournament work in Val-d’Or was that we had a lot of our brothers from the south, the Algonquins, bring a lot of teams,” Hester said. “The kids were excited to play against communities they don’t normally play, like Lac Simon or Kitcisakik – our kids love it.”
They tried to let every interested child participate provided they met eligibility requirements of school attendance above 75% and a passing grade. Three teams made last-minute cancellations because either the goalie couldn’t go, players didn’t receive the necessary authorization or coaches couldn’t take time off work and there was no other parent to step in.
Communities with populations under 1,000 could pick up two eligible import players, a possible solution for kids whose teams weren’t able to participate. A total of 1,233 athletes from 102 teams made the trip to Val-d’Or, including 857 athletes from the Cree Nation in girls, boys and co-ed categories. Four venues hosted a total of 197 games over four days.
“It’s more than just a tournament,” suggested Hester. “At sporting events such as this, it gives us a chance to socialize with members of other communities. The competition is there but that’s not the main point. People know they’re going to see their friends and watch a sport that’s exciting – you should hear all the screams when the games get pretty intense.”
Meanwhile, the kids are keeping physically active, engaged and creating lifelong memories – all thanks to a collective effort from parents, coaches and community management. Hester has seen a significant improvement in sport development programs and athletic infrastructure since the Paix des Braves agreement was signed.
“When I first started working with youth we struggled for funding,” he said. “We always had to work with what we got. Now every year there are budgets we can work with to develop programming, especially for the youth. The addition of venues like the new arena and pool being built now in Waskaganish really helps.”
Much of the success of youth sports is driven by motivated parents and coaches. Dedicated parents are the ones driving to early morning practices or distant competitions, volunteering and fundraising to support their children’s happiness. In Waskaganish, Hester strives to develop certified coaches from the community who know how to work with kids.
“I’d like to thank all the parents and coaches who made this possible,” Hester said. “It’s up to us adults to provide the safe venues, the infrastructure and also the support in terms of coaches and parenting. The kids will show up, they love to play.”