By Sam Laskaris
MISSISSAUGA—The latest chapter in the Little Native Hockey League tournament is being written this week in Mississauga.
There is something different about this year’s event, which has attracted a record 204 youth teams from across Ontario; for the first time in the 46-year history of the tournament, more commonly called the Little NHL, a woman is serving as the president of the event.
Debbie Debassige, who is from the M’Chigeeng First Nation on Manitoulin Island, was appointed as the president of the Little NHL executive committee last summer.
Debassige had previously served on the committee for almost a decade. She replaces her predecessor, Marvin Assinewai, a long-time Little NHL committee member who resigned his post last year after serving as president the past nine years.
Though she is now heading up the tournament’s organizational operations, Debassige points out things couldn’t get done without the assistance of many others.
“There’s no ‘I’ in team,” she said. “I have a very supportive executive to work with.”
This group includes Chico Ralf, who for the past decade has been the vice-president of the Little NHL executive committee. Because of his vice-president position, some felt Ralf, who is from the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory in eastern Ontario, might step up when Assinewai resigned his presidency.
“I’m happy with the position I have,” Ralf said, adding he felt the presidency should go to an individual from or near one of the communities of the tournament’s co-founders.
The inaugural Little NHL was staged in 1971 in Little Current.
Ralf believes Debassige is the perfect person to take over.
“She’s been involved with the executive for a number of years and she’s a good logistics person to get things rolling,” he said.
Debassige’s elevation to president isn’t the only change on the Little NHL executive committee. She is now no longer the only female on the committee as four new members were brought in last year, including three women, Alisha Anderson, Tracy Hanzlik, and Marion Jacko.
Ralf believes Debassige’s professional background as an educator will also be an asset for tournament officials. She currently works as the director of school services for the Kenjgewin Teg Educational Institute in the M’Chigeeng First Nation.
Debassige does pride herself on her co-ordination skills.
“I did practically all of the registrations for all of the teams last year and this year,” she said. “And I assisted with the scheduling.”
That’s a monumental task in itself, determining when and where 200-plus teams will be playing.
This year’s tournament, which began Monday and continues until Thursday, requires the use of 14 ice pads at four different facilities.
Prior to the tournament Debassige had also travelled up to Moose Factory. That’s because she met with officials from the Moose Cree First Nation, this year’s tournament hosts, to provide them guidance and ensure their organizational details were all falling into place.
The honorary chairman of this year’s tournament is Moose Factory native Jonathan Cheechoo, a former National Hockey League star.
Cheechoo recently completed his 17th season of pro hockey. For the past four years, he’s suited up for teams in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), an international professional ice hockey league based in Russia.