Support is growing for the Northern Manitoba U18 AAA hockey team as the league considers eliminating teams

There’s a swell of support for a northern Manitoba hockey team amid growing concern about their future in a top-level league.

The Norman Northstars compete in the Manitoba U18 AAA Hockey League, which is looking for ways to make play more competitive for its players, and one idea floating around is to eliminate two teams.

“When you’re a little kid, it’s the biggest show in town on a Saturday night at the Thompson,” said Chris Minard, former North Stars president. “It’s the biggest show on a Sunday afternoon.”

There are currently 12 teams in the league, including three in Winnipeg, three in southwestern Manitoba and one in Kenora, Ontario. – A guest in the league for nearly 40 years.

No decision has been made regarding the removal of any team.

A man wearing glasses and a mustache poses for a photo at a hockey arena.
Chris Maynard is the former president of the Norman Northstars. He’s concerned about discussions surrounding the removal of teams from the Manitoba U18 AAA Hockey League. (Tyson Kaushik/CBC)

Minard grew up playing hockey in Thompson and said the team is important to the community and gives boys ages 15-18 a chance to play the game close to home at a competitive level.

“With so many Indigenous hockey players in Norman, asking them to leave the north at such a young age, I think it would be a disservice to our northern players,” Maynard said.

The Competition Committee is considering options: League President

Don McIntosh, the league’s president, told CBC News that reducing the number of teams is just one of several options being reviewed by a competition committee formed in December 2022.

“They might join another district, for example, to form a team,” McIntosh said in an interview.

“The plan would be for Kenora to leave. Obviously you can’t reduce Norman’s numbers and keep Kenora.”

Northern Manitobans are upset about plans to remove their hockey team from the league

The Norman North Stars, based in Thompson, Man., are in the playoff spot, but off the ice there is concern about their future in the Manitoba U18 AAA Hockey League.

Some teenage boys are already leaving the North to play elsewhere, McIntosh said.

Aside from this year, Norman, along with Kenora and Parkland, have historically been the least competitive teams in the league, which he said isn’t fair to the players.

Both Kenora and the Northstars have qualified for postseason play just five times in the past 20 years, and Parkland has gone that far just four times in that span.

If any teams are removed, players from those regions will be allowed to try out in different regions, McIntosh said.

It is also possible that the excluded teams will join a similar league at under-17 level.

“We’re not taking away the game of hockey from anyone,” McIntosh said. “It’s not about eliminating kids. It’s about giving top talent the opportunity to excel. That’s what it’s all about.”

Any changes recommended by the competition committee, which was scheduled to meet Monday night, must be approved by the league and then Hockey Manitoba before they can take effect.

But the conversation has already prompted leaders from First Nations and northern communities to write the league, including Nisitchwayasik Cree Nation Chief Angela Levasseur, who played hockey in her younger years.

“Our young men should not have to move to another area to play a sport they love,” Levasseur wrote in a letter to the league commissioner. “Our youth should not leave their families at a young age to pursue their dreams and passions – this is not right.”

A First Nations woman wearing a multi-colored shirt and embroidered medallion sits in front of a large crest on the wall.
Chief Angela Levasseur of the Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, near Thompson, is among those who have written letters to the Manitoba U18 AAA Hockey League in support of the Norman North Stars. (Warren Kay/CBC)

Andre Murphy, mayor of The Pas, is concerned about the impact on young people living in the north.

“Without those programs out there…we’re left with players who are actually at a competitive level and would have to leave their region,” Murphy said. “So, to play at the highest possible level of the league, you would have to go play, go from Thompson or Norwich House to Winnipeg or wherever the other team is in southern Manitoba. That’s not right.”

It goes beyond hockey, Thompson Mayor Colin Smoak said.

“We’re talking about Norman and North Stars hockey being about reconciliation and working with our Indigenous communities,” Smoke told CBC, noting that the North Stars’ last home game drew 1,500 fans to Thompson’s CA Nesbitt Arena.

Hockey player looking for the puck.
Norman North Stars forward Shanten Michelle Thompson searches for the puck during her team’s game against the Winnipeg Bruins on Friday. (Jason Empson/CBC)

Doug Novak, manager of Kenora Thistles, the other team that could be affected, said he is also concerned and wants the team to stay in the league.

“The team has been in the league since 1985 and it’s really hard to see that happening to the program,” Novak said. “It’s kind of hard to see because we’re all there to improve the kids, right.”

Both Norman and Kenora have representatives on the competition committee.

Northstars has declined to comment so far.

The team’s focus now is on its shot at the playoffs. The top eight teams reach seventh place and the Northstars currently sit in seventh place in the standings with seven games to play in the regular season – pushing them to their first postseason berth since the 2012-13 season.

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