Players embrace spirit of remote northern communities

Apparently, the inner chicken in Chris Phillips was just waiting for an opening to get out.

Players embrace spirit of remote northern communities
Northern Lights Dream Tour continues through the North, with another game in Inuvik - a town of about 3,500 people located 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Here, Chris Neil got into the spirit of the north, donning a hat and sealskin mitts on the ice. (JULIE OLIVER/OTTAWA CITIZEN)

WHITEHORSE, Yukon — Apparently, the inner chicken in Chris Phillips was just waiting for an opening to get out.
Ninety minutes before NHL players took the ice for the second game in the Northern Lights Dream Tour at the Midnight Sun Recreational Complex in Inuvik, NWT, on Tuesday — the tour was set to conclude with a game in Whitehorse late Wednesday — Phillips found himself as the centre of attention during a demonstration of traditional Arctic Games.
While many contests are designed to test the physical strength of competitors, there’s also an element which places emphasis on social interaction and community spirit. In this case, Phillips was part of the laughing game — an exercise where the person in the middle of a large circle of spectators is forced to make a challenger chuckle when he imitates the sound of an animal of his choice.
Phillips chose to mimic a chicken as he faced off against Jordin Tootoo. The sound that came out filled the community hall. Eventually, Tootoo couldn’t help but crack a smile.
“I thought that was a pretty good chicken, I actually surprised myself,” said Phillips. “I didn’t know what was going to come out, but I thought I nailed it … and I’ve got the chicken legs to go with it.”
Phillips joked that his nine-year-old son, Ben, who accompanied him on the adventure to the north, might not be able to showcase the video evidence to the rest of the family upon their return to Ottawa.
“I’m going to have to get hold of his iPod, because he taped me doing the chicken and one of the (earlier) dances,” he said. “We might have to do some editing of our own before we go home.”
There was more where that came from. Tootoo made like an angry dog, prompting Neil to break up. Guillaume Latendresse provided a wonderful impression of a horse and Marc Methot made crow sounds.
An hour before game time, the players joined a traditional dance ceremony with the Inuvik Drummers and Dancers. The dancers, ranging in age from three to 69, wore parkas that sported rabbit, beaver, wolverine and wolf wool. The songs date back thousands of years.
“We’ve danced for the prime minister and the governor general, but the NHL players are the best,” said dance leader Wendy Smith. “People love hockey here, up north. We’ve had the odd player come up here before to help with the hockey clinics, but not a group like this. I think way back in the old days, there were the Flying Fathers that came here. This is a big treat for everybody.”
When the NHL players did hit the ice for the charity game — Senators winger Peter Regin ultimately put the finishing touches on a 8-7 game with a shootout goal against Dartmouth College grad Jody O’Neil in front 400 ecstatic fans at the Roy “Sugloo” Ipana Arena – they were joined by a local competitive midget team.
“I know about Jordin Tootoo and Latendresse, but they’re all cool,” said Brian Bellas-Kuzmar, who plays defence. “It’s pretty exciting. I’ve been waiting for this. I couldn’t sleep, waiting. It’s sweet. Normally, we just play the local towns around here.”
The night was even more special for his teammate Jaymes Ares, who just happened to celebrate his 16th birthday by playing with NHL players. The game night ended with the crowd singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
“I couldn’t ask for anything better, this is so awesome,” said Ares, acknowledging having some nerves at the beginning. “A couple of (the players) said ‘happy birthday’ to me.”
As was the case in Yellowknife Sunday, the crowd in Inuvik embraced every moment of having big-leaguers skating in their small community.
“They’re normal, nice guys,” said Deklen Crocker, a 13-year-old who had a chance to mingle with the players. His brothers, Noah, 7, and Jeffrey, 5, were part of the on-ice festivities. Even Katelynn Crocker, their 11-year-old sister — a figure skater at heart — thought it was great that NHL players made the trip here. They all recognized it may never happen again.
“If there was NHL hockey, they wouldn’t be here,” said their father, Ken Crocker. “It’s good for those guys to come around. I’m sure they could have done other things. The kids will remember this.”
Ever since the dates and places of the charity tour were announced a few weeks back, “the buzz has been huge,” according to Tony Devlin, director of community services in Inuvik. Devlin moved here from Ottawa five years ago and hasn’t looked back.
“Once in a while, an athlete drops in, and a couple of guys brought the Grey Cup up here, but the guys are actually playing and doing fun stuff with the kids on the ice. You know, from up here, it’s not easy, or cheap, to fly south.” A quick search of Expedia shows it costs $1850 for a return flight to Edmonton.
Accordingly, traveling to see the NHL is next to impossible. For one night, at least, the NHL came to them.
“The atmosphere in the building was great,” said Neil. “It’s such a neat experience to interact with people from the community.”
All things considered, though, Phillips says his fondest memories will come not from hockey, but from dancing. And, well, clucking like a chicken.
“The hockey is more for the people in the stands, to be able to watch us play up front, in person, and we’ve tried to reciprocate by putting on a good performance,” he said. “I really didn’t know we would be participating in (the activities), but to be able to show my son, too, to get right in there and playing the games and singing and dancing, is amazing. That’s how you learn what it’s all about, by immersing yourself right in it and getting involved.”

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