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Thunderbirds advance to quarter-finals of Little NHL tournament

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The M’Chigeeng Thunderbirds, in white jerseys, blanked the Kattawapiskak Wolves 2-0 in their final round-robin game at the Little NHL on Tuesday.

By Sam Laskaris

MISSISSAUGA – By winning their final round-robin game on Tuesday, the M’Chigeeng Thunderbirds guaranteed themselves a shot at some additional glory at the highest level of their category at the Little Native Hockey League tournament.

The Thunderbirds, who are competing in the boys’ under-18 recreational category, blanked the Kattawapiskak Wolves 2-0 in their Tuesday afternoon contest staged at Iceland Arena in Mississauga.

The Thunderbirds are one of 184 teams participating at the province’s largest Indigenous youth hockey tournament, frequently simply called the Little NHL.

The event, being staged at various rinks throughout Mississauga, kicked-off Sunday, March 12, with opening ceremonies. Games began Monday and continue until Thursday, March 16.

With their Tuesday victory, the M’Chigeeng squad ended up with a 2-1 round-robin mark. And perhaps more importantly, the Thunderbirds qualified for the A section quarter-finals for the age group, which will be held on Wednesday.

B and C section playoffs will also be staged for the age grouping.

M’Chigeeng will square off against Wiikwemkoong, which posted a perfect 3-0 round-robin mark, in its quarter-final match-up, set for 11:15 a.m. at Iceland Arena.

This marks the first time the Little NHL has been held since 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the tourney in each of the past three years.

“It’s nice to have us all back on the ice,” said Thunderbirds’ coach Bert Panamick, who said he has coached in the tournament for as many as 10 years. “It’s great. We love it. It’s lots of fun. It brings all of us together.”

A total of 21 squads entered the boys’ under-18 recreational grouping.

“We’re here to have fun,” said Panamick, whose son Jaron is a forward with the club. “But we also want to win. We’re not here to lose and have fun. We want to go as far as we can, boost our kids’ confidence, tell them what to do, help them along the way to get them as far as they can.”

The Thunderbirds’ roster at the Little NHL features 15 players. A handful of those players are from First Nations other than M’Chigeeng. Squads are able to add imports to their lineup if their own First Nations are not icing teams. For example, Zee Toulouse, one of three girls on the Thunderbirds’ roster, is from Whitefish River First Nation.

Toulouse, who is playing defence for the club and is a Grade 10 student at Manitoulin Secondary School, is thrilled the Little NHL is back this year.

“I think it’s really great,” she said. “I missed playing with a lot of friends. And I missed playing with kids that I know.”

Toulouse, who also played for her high school hockey team this season, said she knows the majority of the Thunderbirds’ players.

“Chemistry is really important for teams,” she said. “There’s a lot of teams out there that are all just pickups. You can tell that they don’t really have a lot of communication and that chemistry going on. So, a lot of team building is important…. We have a few pickups and they’re pretty good. I know most of the people on the team. I think that’s really great.”

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