ATHABASCA - An Aboriginal hockey team from Adelaide, Australia chose both the best and worst time to arrive in Alberta on a cultural exchange.
The youth, who play on the Kaurna (pronounced Gar-nah) Boomerangs, left the Australian summer and a country on fire for the brisk fresh air of Alberta and one of the most brutal cold snaps in recent memory.
Kaurna is an Aboriginal people in Australia, comparable to saying Cree or Ojibwa in North America and Adelaide is on traditional Kaurna land. While not all the players come from the Karuna, they all have Aboriginal ties.
Ranging in age from 12 to 23, the young men and women have all been playing hockey for several years and on Jan. 15, after a day of ice fishing and warming up by a campfire, they played an exhibition game against the Calling Lake Tomahawks in Jaybird Memorial Arena in Calling Lake.
Speaking by phone earlier in the day, centre and team captain Michael Burgoyne, 23, talked about his favourite parts of the trip so far — the club arrived in Canada Jan. 10.
“We went to Rogers Place (where) we trained on the on the rink (and) we visited the Oilers Hall of Fame room,” Burgoyne said. “We went into the dressing rooms; that was fun to sit in the space of Ethan Bear and Conner McDavid, players like that.”
McDavid may be his favourite player, but Burgoyne expressed how much he enjoyed being in Calling Lake and trying new experiences.
“(I’m) looking forward to the cultural stuff we are doing out here with the Cree Nation,” he said. “When we got to Calling Lake yesterday, we tried a few indigenous foods like moose chew and stuff like that.”
But he said he still prefers the taste of kangaroo meat which he describes as “a bit saltier.”
Hosted for an ice fishing excursion by Rick and Carol Badry and Cliff and Linda Black, the traveling team were amazed at what they were doing.
“They were so grateful for the opportunity,” Carol Badry said. “Some found it hard to believe they were walking on a lake.”
Enjoying a campfire and snacks on the toboggan hill the youth looked forward to seeing a sunset in the pristine surroundings Badry added.
“They could hardly wait for the sunset and to take pictures,” she said, adding she agrees Alberta has some of the most spectacular sunsets in the world.
Jaidyn O’Neill, 20, who also plays centre for the team, was inspired to join hockey by his cousin.
“One of my older cousins play for the school team and he was one of the first Indigenous people to play state and represent our people at the same time,” he explained. “And that was pretty big for him.”
O’Neill, who cites Sydney Crosby as his hockey hero, has been playing for seven years and sees it as an opportunity to mentor other youth.
He is also the reason the team exists according to Mary Shaw, a judge, whose daughter inspired her to get behind introducing hockey to Aboriginal youth.
Initially started as way for her daughter Justine, who describes herself as “the run amok,” to overcome dyslexia, Mary secured a hockey arena in Adelaide that was going to be demolished. She has turned that non-profit arena into a place for disenfranchised Aboriginal youth to make a difference.
The program sees around 250 youth pass through the halls every year according to Mary who is traveling with the hockey team.
A few years ago, O’Neill and a friend approached Mary to set up an official hockey team which her daughter Justine now coaches, and the Karuna Boomerangs were launched.
After the game Justine, who has been playing for 19 years and coaching for 12, spoke about how well her team did.
“There’s a very limited amount of goalies you can shoot on in Australia. They’re very limited on the players you can play against. So, when you get a new one or very good one, it takes them a minute or two to sort of (adjust) and I think that was our second period,” she stated. “It took us a minute to go ‘Oh, whoops, we let a few slip,’ so it was a minute of adjustment, but it eventually came good.”
Justine credits the players and support group for the success of the trip.
“I’ve got an amazing team here tonight; the leadership group has supported me as much as I’ve supported them,” she added. “And the team is a family; we always have family at hand and they’re great.”
The day before the Boomerangs arrived, Calling Lake facilities manager Angela Lightning was busy setting up a “tent city” inside the rec centre for the visitors.
“We’re getting pretty excited getting their dressing room all personalized and having their sleeping quarters; getting them all comfortable and menus ready for the next three days,” she said. “So yeah, we’re all pretty excited to have them.”
Area residents packed the arena Jan. 15 to cheer loudly for both teams in the straight-time game that was a nailbiter right down to the last second when the Boomerangs scored the game winning goal with only 11.9 seconds left.
The final was 8-7 and the crowd erupted in cheers as the puck crossed the goal line.
The team is slated to fly back to Australia Jan. 19 after taking in the Edmonton Oilers hosting the Arizona Coyotes at Rogers Place Jan. 18.