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Norman Northstars U18 AAA hockey team staying in Thompson after outcry over amalgamation plan

The Norman Northstars are staying in Thompson, Man., after public outcry over a proposal to remove the club from a high-calibre hockey league that helps develop teenagers to play the sport at the junior and college levels.

Directors with the Manitoba U18 AAA hockey league voted down a proposal Wednesday night that called for the northern-Manitoba-based Northstars to amalgamate with the Parkland Rangers based out of Dauphin.

“We put different options towards our directors yesterday and our directors voted that we want to maintain the existing boundaries and establish what we are calling the Manitoba Elite Hockey League,” said Levi Taylor, the league’s commissioner, in a phone interview with CBC.

“This will be a league that oversees U18 AAA, U17 AAA and U15 AAA.”

Playing out of Thompson’s C.A. Nesbitt Arena, the Northstars have been part of the league for about 40 years. The team is made up of players who come from communities and First Nations across the north, including some from Nunavut.

Thompson Mayor Colleen Smook was among many fighting to save the team.  

“It’s fantastic. Everybody is so excited,” Smook said in a interview from Saskatoon. 

Hockey players and a coach are shown on a bench inside a hockey arena.
Norman Northstars players and a coach are pictured on the bench at Southdale Community Centre in Winnipeg on Friday Feb. 2, 2024. (Jaison Empson/CBC )

The U18 Northstars draw hundreds of fans to home games and the team has strong support from sponsors, something Smook is already trying to improve.

“I’ve encouraged the population of Thompson, now that we know we have the Northstars team, how close we came to …losing it … it’ll just have to improve even more,” she said.

Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak — which represents northern Manitoba First Nations — said in a statement keeping the Northstars in the league will mean youth in the region will still get a chance to excel in and benefit from playing hockey.

“Our children will be able to play the sport they love, compete in, and thrive with their continued access to these opportunities,” he said.

The team declined comment on the decision but in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the U18 Northstars expressed “sincere appreciation to everyone for their unwavering support and enthusiasm.”

While the team made a push for the playoffs this season, the Northstars ended up missing the post-season, finishing one point behind the eighth-place Eastman Selects.

Increasing competition was one of the reasons cited by the league for amalgamations.

Norman, has typically been among the least competitive teams in the league, along with Kenora and Parkland.

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

Under the proposal that was approved, Kenora, which was also at risk of being removed, could continue to apply for out-of-province membership in the league as it’s done for the past 40 years.

‘Opens up a lot of doors’: former Northstars player

Tony Apetagon, a fourth-year forward on the University of Manitoba Bisons men’s hockey team, went on to play for the OCN Blizzard in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League after two seasons with the Northstars.

The 25-year-old moved to Thompson from Norway House Cree Nation when he was 16 to play for the team. While leaving home for the first time to play hockey was difficult, Apetagon said the Northstars program made the transition much easier.

“It’s a great program for a lot of kids like me to go and pursue their hockey dreams,” Apetagon said in an interview earlier in February. 

Two hockey players in brown uniforms are pictured with one carrying the puck down the ice.
University of Manitoba Bisons forward Tony Apetagon is pictured with the puck during a game. (Dave Mahussier/Bison Sports)

He said the team found him a billet family to live with in Thompson and took care of all his needs.

“I was the only kid from Norway House to make the team, so it was a whole new learning experience for me, teaming up with kids from all over northern Manitoba,” he said.

Not only do players in his position live with a new family, they start in a new school in a whole new community but Apetagon said the team helped with that.

“You’re still a teenager when you’re there,” he said. “It teaches you life skills when you do leave. The difference is they really support you and make sure you get your education. That’s the number one thing. You’re a student before a hockey player.”

While Apetagon felt some apprehension about joining the team, he said he’d do it all over again.

“You have to make sacrifices to chase that dream and I’m glad I did it,” Apetagon said.

He points out another former Northstar, Brady Keeper, went on to the NHL after playing for the team.

“A lot of kids play hockey up north,” he said. “That’s the team you want to go play for when you want to play competitive hockey.

“It’s a great program and just opens up a lot of doors.”

Hockey Winnipeg supports Northstars, opposes other changes

Ian McArton, the executive director of Hockey Winnipeg, is glad to hear the U18 Northstars aren’t going anywhere.

“We’re thrilled that support was there and the community rose up and voiced that because it’s important,” McArton said, noting he had a meeting with Thompson’s mayor to talk about the team’s future.

A youth hockey team celebrates on the ice after a victory.
The Norman Northstars team celebrates at Southdale Community Centre Feb. 2, 2024 after a 6-5 win over the Winnipeg Bruins. (Jaison Empson/CBC )

McArton, however, disagrees with the U18 AAA league’s decision to create the Manitoba Elite Hockey League, or MEHL. 

The proposal calls for two leagues Hockey Winnipeg has traditionally operated, the U15 AAA program and U17 AAA program, to join the U18 league under the umbrella of the MEHL.

The proposal still needs approval at the Hockey Manitoba level.

“Hockey Winnipeg does not support this proposal at the moment,” McArton said.

“We feel that the changes, proposals and discussion should be happening at that level rather than through the U18 league. So our belief is that the U18 AAA league should be looking after U18 AAA … and they’re working outside of their scope by looking at the other two leagues.”

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