Stars on ice

Iqaluit’s Nanooks shine on Ottawa rink



Some of the players on the Iqaluit Nanooks Pee Wee hockey team have never been on an airplane — and certainly have never been to the South. So when the team travelled to Ottawa earlier this month to compete in a tournament, many found it difficult to concentrate on hockey.

But as the 22 players, aged 11 to 14, stepped inside the Ottawa airport on Jan. 4, they were immediately reminded why they were there. The team was met by a crowd of host families from nearby Blackburn, Ontario, holding up bright red jerseys with each child’s name.

The Nanooks did themselves proud over the two days of hockey. They lost their first two games 3-2 and tied their third game 4-all.

“They were definitely in it. It was evenly matched hockey,” said Glen Higgins, president of the Iqaluit Hockey Association, which funded the trip. “They played well and raised eyebrows down there. There’s a lot of natural skill in these kids.”

The Ottawa Citizen newspaper featured the team’s efforts on the front page of its sports section and a local paper also covered their games. Higgins, somewhat surprised by the media interest, was more taken aback by the spirit the team showed, both on and off the ice.

“The one thing that really impressed me about the kids was that after each of the two games they had lost, they came off the ice not looking down, but slapping each other on the back. They had big smiles on their faces as if they had won a game. That told me all I needed to know about these kids,” he said.

Off the ice, many of the kids were wowed by the big city. “Shopping was a big attraction — Canadian Tire and Wal-Mart,” Higgins said, chuckling. “Some went to the mall, some got into the sports stores, bought themselves some new sticks and equipment, which was a big thrill for them. They were on overdrive the whole weekend.”

A group of players at one house was reportedly up talking quietly at 3 a.m. the second night, too excited to sleep.

The Nanooks provided a few thrills of their own. Besides being dubbed the most polite kids the hosts had ever seen, hockey fans were suitably impressed with the skills of one particular player. Olivia Kovic, 14, the only girl on the team, plays centre.

“It was a big thrill for the people down there when they found out that this excellent guy was actually a girl,” Higgins said. “She had some excellent skills out there, people couldn’t believe it was a girl.”

At a Pee Wee practice in Iqaluit earlier this week, players glide around the rink, shooting pucks. Some are dressed in the team’s white Nanook jerseys, emblazoned with the team’s crest, others wearing their red Stingers garb.

Coach Sheldon Clouter skates over and heaps praise on the team. “We should have won the whole tournament,” he says. The Nanooks are used to half an hour warm-up time before games, he explains, but in Blackburn they were only given 15 minutes.

Clouter calls Olivia Kovic to the boards. Clad in layers of hockey gear it’s not hard to understand why some people in Ontario mistook her for another male player. But when she gets closer, a shy smile peeks out from behind the grill of her mask.

A quiet girl wearing number 11, Kovic shrugs humbly when asked what it is like to play in the tournament. “It was good — different,” she says. “I learned some new stuff.”

Kovic also plays on the women’s hockey team in Iqaluit — which means she’s on the ice five times a week. But she says she enjoys Nanook practice because the drills are better.

The drills have paid off — Kovic scored one of the goals at the weekend hockey tournament. “Yeah, it felt good,” she says after some thought. Clearly anxious to get back on the ice, she hops out of the visitors’ box and is promptly given a friendly shove by another player. The smile can be seen from far away this time.

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