Skip to content

'A gathering of our nations': Little NHL celebrates 50 years

The March break tradition has grown from humble beginnings into the largest hockey tournament for First Nations youth in Ontario
This year's Little NHL will see 245 teams and more than 4,000 youth representing First Nations across Ontario taking part in the annual hockey tournament.

Larry Cachagee fondly recalls how proud he and his young teammates were to lace up the skates for the Garden River Braves during the first few years of the Little NHL Tournament. 

Cachagee was just 11 years old when he took part in the very first tournament, which was held in 1971 with just 17 teams and 200 players taking part. Now on the cusp of celebrating its 50th anniversary, the annual March break tradition has since become the largest hockey tournament for First Nations youth in Ontario. 

“That’s one thing I looked forward to every March break, because I knew that tournament was coming up,” said Cachagee. “It was a good hockey tournament with good hockey, and representing Garden River was an honour, you know?” 

This year, 245 teams have registered for Little NHL (LNHL) — an all-time record for the event — with more than 4,000 Indigenous youth hitting the ice across 10 different rinks in Markham, Ont. from March 11 to 14. More than 500 games will be played within that span. The tournament will also see a record number of female hockey players, with 38 all-female squads taking part.   

The LNHL came from humble beginnings on Manitoulin Island in 1971, when five people — Earl Abotossaway, former Chief Jim McGregor, the late James D. Debassige, the late Reverend Leonard Self and the late Norman Debassige — envisioned a hockey tournament for First Nations youth where they could play the game free from racism and discrimination while representing their communities.

The tournament boasts some well-known alumni, including former NHL player and coach Ted Nolan and softball legend Darren Zack, who both played for the Garden River Braves alongside Cachagee in the very first LNHL tournament. Cachagee, who played for Garden River from 1971 to 1974, said that while his squad had adequate hockey equipment and matching uniforms, some other teams weren’t as fortunate. 

“I remember playing against this team from Moose Factory; most of those kids didn’t even have the proper equipment — they were playing with mitts on, and they were switching equipment off and on as each line changed,” he said. “Looking at other teams that had less, we were quite appreciative of what we had.” 

The Cachagee family’s involvement in LNHL now spans three generations: Cachagee coached his twin sons over the years, and now, both his grandson and nephew are taking part. “It’s a nice legacy to leave,” he said. 

LNHL acting president Chico Ralf has been involved in the tournament in different capacities for over three decades. He’s amazed by the uptick in participation for this year’s tournament, especially in light of the fact that it was cancelled from 2020 to 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When the LNHL returned to the ice in 2023, a total of 184 teams took part.          

But this year, the LNHL is setting record participation numbers. “That’s what the Little NHL is — it’s not just a hockey tournament. It’s a gathering of our nations, and you create lifelong friendships,” he said. 

The number of sponsors has also grown along with the tournament, with big corporate names like the National Hockey League, Hydro One and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment jumping on board. 

“They see the value of sport, and what sport can do for the youth,” said Ralf. “One of our elders said this quite a few years ago to us: If we can keep our kids in sports, we can keep them out of courts. And I really believe that.” 

The 50th anniversary of the LNHL kicked off yesterday with an anniversary gala featuring keynote speaker Ted Nolan. An opening day festival featuring food trucks, carnival rides and live entertainment will then take place at Markham Civic Centre today in the lead-up to the actual hockey tournament. The festival will begin with opening ceremonies co-hosted by longtime hockey broadcaster Ron MacLean and former National Hockey League player Anthony Stewart. 

The excitement continues to build as Indigenous hockey teams and their families prepare to travel to Markham for a week of hockey action during the March break. “People schedule their vacation around it, you know?” said Cachagee. “It’s a family-oriented tournament, and that’s when you really look forward to seeing your family — seeing your cousins, seeing your aunties and uncles. 

“Hockey brings a lot of people together.”

More information on this year's tournament can be found on the LNHL Facebook page