Northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan’s newest junior hockey team is on the ice. After years of planning and with a long list of regional talent on board, the Peter Ballantyne Cree Nation (PBCN) Selects have arrived.
Playing out of the Whitney Forum this season, the PBCN Selects are the newest team in the Keystone Junior Hockey League (KJHL), a northern Manitoba-based junior B league. All six teams in the league operate in agreement with local first nations - the Cross Lake Islanders, the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation (NCN) Flames, the Norway House North Stars, the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) Storm and Peguis Juniors will be PBCN’s immediate competition this season.
The Selects held the first home game in franchise history back on Oct. 15, a 9-5 win over Norway House. That home opener brought a sizable crowd to the Whitney Forum - a crowd that Selects head coach and general manager Gatlin Church remembers fondly.
“It gave me goosebumps,” he recounted.
“I anticipated having some people - the community kind of blew the doors open and filled up the place. Anytime you can get 500 people to a junior B game, things are going good. We hope that our fan support continues, we hope to have a good product that will be competitive.”
Attempts to get a junior team on ice representing PBCN have been made before, but none have successfully hit the ice until this season. To get to that point, the Saskatchewan-based band looked at joining junior B leagues in either Manitoba or Saskatchewan, going with the Manitoba-based KJHL in the end.
The PBCN team has backing from the band, receiving a band/council resolution to kick things off earlier this year and working with councillors and administration. Players from close to town stay with their families, while others stay together in a team compound set up in Creighton.
“I’m very excited for where we are. I think this has the opportunity to be a special season for us, a building block to success for the next few years,” Church said.
The team has gone 3-7-0-3 through their opening stretch in the league, good enough for fifth in the six-team loop.
The Selects have used a combination of local and imported talent to get there - players from Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Quebec and Nunavut play for the squad. That includes 11 players from the eight communities of PBCN, including six players from Pelican Narrows - including captain Tyler Bird - and others from Prince Albert and Denare Beach.
Five skaters from Flin Flon and one from Creighton also play for the club, each of whom played their minor hockey in the same rink they play in now. The team's three assistant coaches - Jay Fehr, Drew Morin and Andrew Smith - also all hail from the north, with Fehr a Flin Flon native, Morin from Denare Beach and Smith from Thompson.
Dwayne McKenzie, originally from Cumberland House, was the team’s first recruit for this year. A 19-year-old, 6-foot-3 defenceman and an assistant captain, McKenzie has been an offensive catalyst so far this season, with 13 goals and 23 points in just 11 games - good enough for second in team scoring and tops on the team for defencemen. McKenzie even managed to score a lacrosse goal in a road game for the Selects earlier this season.
“It’s going good - I actually like it out here. The team’s going good this year,” he said.
“We still have a lot to go, but it should be working. We’re building right now.”
The emphasis on northern talent includes three players from Nunavut, including Terence Pilakapsi, who recently joined the club from Rankin Inlet. A nephew of the famed Tootoo brothers, Jordin and his namesake Terence, Pilakapsi joined the Selects in time for a home stand against Peguis.
“So far, it’s been really great. I’ve been enjoying the boys here. It’s a great working team,” Pilakapsi said.
Church doesn’t see the Selects as a direct competitor to the Bombers - instead, he sees them more as something different, saying that community support has been coming in.
“Flin Flon is a hockey town. The Bombers have been here for almost a hundred years and they’ve done a very good job of making this a hockey town. We kind of just ride in there and benefit from the foundation that the Bomber organization has led,” Church said.
“Being honest, Flin Flon was lukewarm to the idea of junior B at first. They love the Bombers and we don’t want to replace that - we just offer another idea of hockey because this is a hockey town and it provides a place for a lot of local kids to play. There’s more and more people going forward saying, ‘How can I get involved? How can I help? What do you need?’”
Church sees the team as an opportunity to bridge gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous northern communities, bringing players from different walks of life - particularly northern talent - together to provide them a chance to advance their careers.
“Our mission statement here, our goal is to open doors, to bridge gaps between First Nation and non-First Nations, Indigenous and non-Indigenous - if our dressing room is a French kid, an Inuit kid, a First Nation kid, a Metis kid, a non-status kid and we can get along and form a bond, then society hopefully can do that.”
“By opening those doors, we want to take those kids and show them that there’s more opportunity.”