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USports stars reunite with Wiikwemkoong T-Birds at Chief Thunderstick tournament


A seminal moment in the growing legacy of the Fred Sasakamoose Chief Thunderstick tournament, the opportunity for ten women’s teams to grace the ice in 2022 featured a who’s who of the sport’s Indigenous heroes. For the Wiikwemkoong T-Birds, led by head coach Ted Nolan, former recipient of the Jack Adams Trophy, the roster consisted of a gathering of elite USports talent.

Among the star players headlining this group included Jana Headrick, the 2022 recipient of the Marion Hilliard Award. Raised on the Garden River First Nation in Ontario, she organized a camp for Indigenous girls in New Brunswick. Spanning six weeks, including free equipment for the participants, the camp shall continue in the autumn of 2022 under the leadership of Lily George, a member of the Nipissing First Nation.

Having played alongside Headrick in a landmark season with the University of New Brunswick Reds, capturing regular season and postseason championships in the Atlantic University Sport conference, George and Headrick have a friendship dating back prior to University hockey. The opportunity to play with the T-Birds took on more than an opportunity to honor their heritage, it extended a magical season,

“I have known Jana since 2015 where we had the opportunity to play with each other for the first time. We stayed in touch for years after that, which led Jana to playing at UNB with me after her four years at the University of Toronto. So, for me it is always a good time when I get to play with Jana. Having a long time friend on your team is always special.”

Undoubtedly, George is like a sister to Headrick, a bond strengthened on the ice and through heritage. Both integral in the success of the Indigenous hockey camp, a display of teamwork that exemplified the exceptional team culture of the Reds, gracing the ice together always represents a facet of enjoyment. 

The theme of family took on a highly emotional component for Headrick. Worth noting, her brother Owen, who spent part of the 21-22 season in the American Hockey League, also has the Chief Thunderstick tournament on his resume. Playing for Garden River in 2021, he captured the Best Defender Award.

Adding lustre to the prestige of such an historic tournament, the milestone was made richer for Headrick by calling her younger sister Mya as teammates. Skating for the Etobicoke Jr Dolphins, appearing in 27 games this past season, she captured the gold medal in the OWHA U22 Provincials.

“Anytime I get to play with Lily, I really enjoy it. She is a great person and player. It is always nice to play with her.

My older brother had previously played in the tournament. As this was the first year of the women’s division, some of the participants, I played with when I was younger. I also got to play with my younger sister Mya. She will be going to Bemidji State next year. It was so nice to play with her.

As the event had younger players and university players, plus a handful of girls from minor hockey, it was great to represent women’s hockey together.” 

Serving as a unique intersection for Headrick, both chapters of her USports career were prevalent in her Chief Thunderstick experience. Having first starred for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, winning the McCaw Cup in 2020, Headrick encountered Jessica Turi, a member of the Blues coaching staff, on-hand at the event.

Having finished her freshman season with the Varsity Blues, Sophia Grawbarger is the next in line among stars from Garden River. Recording her first USports goal versus Ontario Tech on November 6, 2021, Headrick and Grawbarger skated together in T-Birds paraphernalia.

Also from Garden River, Brittney Zack called Headrick a teammate for the first time. Coincidentally, the two crossed paths at the 2022 U Sports Nationals. Zack, skating for the OUA’s Nipissing Lakers, encountered Headrick’s University of New Brunswick Reds in the medal round.

“Brittney grew up nearby. Our families knew each other for years. Although we never got to play minor hockey together, it has been a privilege to play together now.

It’s been great to see her succeed at Nipissing. To play with her, rather than against her was much more enjoyable.” 

During her years competing in the PWHL, Zack skated with George as members of the Barrie Sharks. Becoming teammates once again, the opportunity to make history together held tremendous meaning for Zack. Reflecting on how the teammates encompassed the most enjoyable facet of this newest chapter of her hockey sojourn, a roster that also featured Metropolitan Riveters skaters Kristen Barbara and Kelly Babstock, the experience provided Zack with a feeling of reunion.

“I would say that one of the things I enjoyed most about the inaugural women’s tournament was playing with my teammates. A lot of the girls on my team were familiar faces. Some were new but for the most part I have played against or with them at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships. It was pretty cool sharing the ice and playing against some Olympians as well!”

Worth noting, one of the Olympic alumnae, Brigette Lacquette, suggested the introduction of a women’s tournament back in 2021. Having played in the men’s tournament for two years, Lacquette played for Mistawasis Sage Strong in the inaugural women’s tournament, capturing the championship. A role model for Headrick, having met her as a teenager, the opportunity to get acquainted represented a special occasion.

“Lacquette visited our community a number of years ago. To see her and catch up was great. It was nice to see Abby Roque, she once played with my older brother. I congratulated her on all the great stuff she accomplished over the last couple of years.”

A timeless event where hockey and heritage intersected, sporting equality representing a sensational achievement on this marvelous spring day. The souls of the competitors were touched with passion and pride, transcending sport.

For a player such as George, ecstatic at the prospect of participating in the first tournament of its kind, a display of skill that left all impressed. The rise of women capturing the imagination, poised to inspire. 

George and her Wiikwemkoong teammates belonged to a fascinating narrative, contributing towards Indigenous culture and sporting Canadiana, reflecting their indomitable spirit. Future female players will look to this event as one that shaped their place in the realm of Indigenous hockey.

“Playing at the tournament was a really fun experience. I always enjoy when communities gather especially for sports because it has always been a big part of my life. This tournament reminded me of playing at the Little Native Hockey League tournament when I was younger. 

It was great hockey to watch, a celebration for the love of the game as Indigenous people. Plus an opportunity to honour Fred Sasakamoose, who was an inspiration to many Indigenous hockey players. It was also a great experience to be coached by Ted Nolan again as he is also a role model for Indigenous hockey players and is someone I have a lot of respect for.

Overall, I was able to create memories with both old and new friends and I am grateful for all the staff’s hard work which brought the team together for the tournament.”

All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated

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In this article: #2022, #Awards, #IndigenousAthletes, #IndigenousWomensHockey, #Olympians, #OUA, #OWHA, #PWHL, #Reds, #UniversityHockey, #USports, #WomenInSport, #Womenshockey, grow the game, Hockey

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