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​​​​​​​Northstars Under Attack

Thompson Fights Against Proposal to Cut Teams
Levi Taylor in town wide meeting about North Stars proposal

A recent proposal to cut teams including the Norman Northstars from the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL) has caused widespread concern and outcry among community members. The proposal is aimed at raising the bar for the league, but many are questioning whether eliminating teams is the right approach.


One of the biggest concerns raised by community members is the creation of geographical, financial, and accessibility barriers for players in the North. The proposal would require high school students to uproot their lives and move 800 kilometers from home, which many are calling unreasonable and unfair.


The Northstars are the only team in the 12-team Manitoba Under-18 AAA Hockey League (MBU18AAAHL) that is based in the northern region of Manitoba, and one of eight teams outside Manitoba’s two largest cities.  Each minor hockey region in the province operates one team, while three are located in Winnipeg and the Kenora Thistles are based out of Ontario.


The league has not yet announced any changes in teams for the upcoming season, including whether or not the Northstars would be cut from the league. In light of this, the Reminder reached out to both league commissioner Levi Taylor and league president Don McIntosh for clarification. In response, a town-wide call-out was organized on February 24th featuring Levi Taylor, who showed up to address the unsettling proposal.


Taylor addressed that "The reason this is happening during this season is because Hockey Manitoba’s motion deadline is March 4th, and if we want to make any changes, we need to come to a resolution before the season starts." He continued, acknowledging the anger and frustration that many have expressed towards the league, the competition committee, and himself. "I understand that people feel we are abandoning the North or kicking people out, but I do not believe that is the case.”


Stern and clear opposition to the proposal was continually presented by many passionate attendees.  Niki Ashton, a Member of Parliament for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski mentioned that this proposal cuts kids off at the knees “Our message is clear, take this proposal off the table.  This is an elite, out-of-touch Southern-based proposal which I believe is the opposite of where Hockey Canada is going and in the opposite direction of where we should be going as a country” Ashton continued, “If Hockey Manitoba wants to support hockey let’s see them come out to our communities, see what we need, go into the outdoor communities, see what they need, grow the sport support our young people.  Don’t cut us off at the knees”. “And I’m going to say for the last time: Take this proposal off the table, otherwise, we’re taking it to the top, to Hockey Canada, and I’ll be proud to be right there”


Destiny Werstroh spoke on behalf of Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA); Eric Redhead; emphasizing the crucial role the North Stars played in their community. Redhead stated in his letter that the team was not just a sports team but the heartbeat of their town. He demanded that the team stay in Thompson where they rightfully belong.


"Asking high school students to uproot their lives and move 800 kilometers from home is not only unreasonable but also unfair.  We demand that they stay in Thompson where they rightfully belong” Stated representative; Werstroh, “It’s unjust to disregard the importance of the North Stars to Manitoba and to our town”


Kathy Valentino, Mayor Smook's deputy mayor and a board member of the Norman Northstars regional board, stepped up to counter Taylor’s perspective and expressed her concerns about the U-15 AAA program and the region being a weekend-only program. Valentino stated that hockey is far more in the community than mere weekends and that she believes that the program provides an opportunity for kids in the region to pursue their dreams of playing hockey.


“The ratio of 32 practices of a total of 64 times on the ice we are creative with the scheduling Hockey in Winnipeg lets us be directive in their discussions and they work with us on training and skill development in our schedule we start early with the grace of Hockey Manitoba and we work very hard and I am very, very proud of that program and I find it extremely disrespectful when it’s identified as a weekend only program when I created it and it is not”


Valentino further expressed that Hockey provides a safe haven for kids who struggle with drug and alcohol content as well as mental health.  In a town far into the North it can be a struggle to give opportunities, and little opportunities cause idle hands that likely lead to mischief.  Hockey gives these kids a chance to exhort their energy on something productive, something worth their time and energy;


“We struggle greatly in our region with mental health with our youth I think it is absolutely shameful that it has come to this to be a vote when there is a Hockey season going on and these youth are trying to deal with going to school, not living at home, playing Hockey and this is happening.  Shame on you” Valentino concluded.


Mayor Smook is among many other community mayors who have written letters to the Manitoba U18 AAA Hockey League supporting the Norman Northstars.

Stating in the letter that it goes far beyond a game of hockey, ”We're talking about Norman and Northstars hockey is all about reconciliation and working with our Indigenous communities," Smook told CBC, pointing out a recent Northstars home game drew 1,500 fans to Thompson's C.A. Nesbitt Arena.


While Kim McIntosh, the Commissioner of the MHL, believes that the proposal is not about eliminating kids but providing an opportunity for high-end talent to excel. McIntosh emphasized that the proposal was about raising the bar and providing the best possible experience for the players.


"We're not taking hockey away from anyone," McIntosh said. "It's not about eliminating kids. It's about providing an opportunity for high-end talent to excel. That's what it's all about."

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According to Jaycee Frost, a parent of a North Stars player, the proposal would in fact end up eliminating kids from the team. She stated that it would create geographical, financial, and accessibility barriers for all the players in the North. “Only the elite players would be able to make it to a Southern team, and only the richest families would be able to afford their players to be billeted and embrace a lifestyle in the South.  Only a select few families would be able to travel consistently to ensure their players' physical and emotional well-being and offer the family some support that would ensure their success” She stated that it was made out of pure greed and put winning above development. She emphasized that as a paying member of the organization, she expected the organization to adhere to the Hockey Canada commitment detailed in the path forward framework and be held accountable to ensure that this commitment is upheld.


The fight against the proposal has caused an uproar in the hockey community in Manitoba. The proposed cuts would significantly impact the players, their families, and their communities. The community members, including politicians, parents, and players, have demanded that the proposal be taken off the table and that Hockey Manitoba should come out to the communities to see what they need and grow the sport. The MHL believes that the proposal is necessary to raise the bar and provide the best possible experience for the players. The decision on the proposal's fate remains to be seen.


~Matthias J. Johnson is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the Thompson Citizen.  The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

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