By Sam Laskaris
CHIPPEWAS OF THE THAMES FIRST NATION–For the second consecutive year, a young Indigenous hockey player has helped his squad win a league championship in southwestern Ontario.
But this year’s title has added significance for Gavin McGahey-Smith and his Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs’ Major Atom AAA teammates.
The Chiefs captured their second straight Alliance Hockey crown this past Saturday. Thanks to a 1-0 victory over the London Jr. Knights in Game 6 of its league finals, the Elgin-Middlesex squad captured its eight-point series 9-3.
By winning their league crown, the Chiefs advance to their Ontario Hockey Federation (OHF) tournament, scheduled for April 7-9 in Hamilton.
McGahey-Smith, a member of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation, is the only Indigenous player on his squad.
The Major Atom level, featuring players born in 2006, is the first age grouping in the province that includes an OHF tournament. As a result, a year ago McGahey-Smith and his teammates did not move on after winning their league.
Five squads will compete at the OHF tournament, including the host, Hamilton Jr. Bulldogs.
The Chiefs will enter their provincials sporting an over-all record of 64-8-8 this season.
“I expect it to be harder and faster,” McGahey-Smith, a Grade 5 student at Antler River Elementary School on his First Nation, said of the expected competition they will face.
Besides the host Jr. Bulldogs and the Chiefs, the OHF event will also include the playoff champions from the Greater Toronto Hockey League, Ontario Minor Hockey Association, and the Northern Ontario Hockey Association.
McGahey-Smith believes his club is capable of faring well in Hamilton.
“I’m hoping we make it to the finals,” he said.
The participating squads at the OHF tournament will play each opponent once, resulting in four round-robin matches. The top four finishers will then advance to semi-final action.
For Chiefs’ head coach Mike van de Ven, this marks the third straight season that he has had McGahey-Smith on his roster. He also coached the youngster on a Mount Brydges Novice Rep team two seasons ago.
“He’s very, very passionate about the sport,” van de Ven said. “And he is a huge part of our team.”
The Chiefs do not keep track of their players’ individual points. But the coach believes McGahey-Smith, a left winger, would be among the Top 5 in team scoring.
The Elgin-Middlesex coach also said McGahey-Smith has several key assets which result in making him a valued contributor.
“He’s got an amazing shot on him,” he said. “He’s a big strong boy, he battles hard and he’s a very good skater.”
Besides winning their league championship once again this season, the Chiefs also had their share of success in various tournaments they entered.
They managed to win a September event in Toronto and another one in Burlington in December.
The Elgin-Middlesex team also advanced to the championship final of a Chicago tournament in November, losing the gold-medal game to Team Illinois.
The Chiefs were also quarter-finalists in the two other tournaments they competed in, staged in Toronto and Buffalo.