Pinning down the importance of hockey to Peguis First Nation isn’t so much a matter of tracing the depth of its roots as it is seeing the two as irreversibly intertwined. Ask anyone from the community about its passion for the game, and that becomes abundantly clear.
“Peguis is hockey, and hockey is Peguis,” says Lawrence Bear, a former player and writer from the community. “We have kids who played in the past and present go onto the next level and excel. One is playing in Maine right now, others are in Pilot Mound. Some play in the MMJHL. Hockey is in our blood. Ice runs through our veins.
“The moment we set foot on the ice, we become warriors like our ancestors.”
The premier on-ice warriors in Peguis First Nation — the largest First Nation community in Manitoba, and the site of this weekend’s Rogers Hometown Hockey festivities — are the ones draped in red and black jerseys, flying around the local rink: The Peguis Juniors.
Bear once played for the vaunted local Junior B team back in his younger days, before a decades-long stint as the club’s in-arena announcer.
“My fondest memories are playing for the Juniors. The whole community was in attendance, it seemed,” Bear says. “Mind you, this was at our old barn.”
He isn’t the only one with fond memories of that old rink. Mike Spence, who coached the Juniors for the past six years, was the team’s scoring phenom in his own younger days, leading the club to its first two Keystone Junior Hockey League championships in the late ’90s.
“It was pretty crazy. The whole barn was packed,” Spence says, recalling the Game 6 victory on the Peguis Arena ice. “After we won, I don’t think we got out of our equipment until maybe two hours after the game — our whole dressing room was filled up with fans. They kept coming in, celebrating with us.”
For anyone who took to the arena’s ice, or filled up its stands to watch their beloved Juniors, the rink was second to none.
“The roar of the crowd when you scored, and the thunder on huge hits, whether it’s ones delivered or taken — I miss those days,” says Bear. “Them the glory days.”
In February 2007, Peguis First Nation lost its arena, a devastating fire destroying the rink, its Zamboni, and all the equipment housed inside. The fire left the community without local hockey for nearly a decade, derailing Peguis’s local legacy. The impact of the tragedy wasn’t slight.
“When that old arena burnt down, it felt like somebody died in the community,” Spence says. “I loved that rink.”
“It was a sad day when we all watched it burn,” adds Bear. “So much memories gone in an instant. The trophies and the memorabilia, so many other hockey items, all our Juniors equipment and other kids’ who stored their gear there.”
When the Peguis Arena went, so too did the Juniors. While neighbouring communities – particularly Fisher Branch and Fisher River – were gracious enough to lend their ice and take in the displaced Peguis teams, ensuring the local prospects could continue to play and develop, those back in Peguis First Nation found themselves left with the heart of their community gone.
“Hockey just kind of… I wouldn’t say died out, but the numbers dropped off — kids playing, stuff like that,” Spence says. “But our neighbouring communities helped out a lot. They took us in, let us use their arenas.
“And then finally we got our new rink, a beautiful rink.”
It took seven years for the triumphant return to come when, in September 2014, the Peguis Multiplex opened its doors. Soon after, the Juniors were able to take the ice in front of their home fans once again. And another return still, as Spence — who’d been there from Day 1 of the new arena project, having helped build the Multiplex himself — had returned to his former team to take control of the coaching reins.
There, finally reunited with their community, with their hometown fans, with their former scoring phenom now behind the bench, the Juniors dusted off Peguis First Nation’s on-ice legacy and raised it back up high. They went from displaced to dynasty, rolling all the way to a championship in just their second year playing at the Peguis Multiplex.
And then they did it again the next year. And the next. And once more after that, leading them into this current campaign as winners of four straight provincial titles, on the hunt for a five-peat.
The secret to that dominant run of success? The same thing that the Juniors teams of old relied on — a bond forged over years, not months.
“We always knew we had a chance at winning it because this core group of guys came back every year,” Spence says of his team’s historic run. “You know, all our local kids have come up through our minor-hockey system, they’ve played with each other right from squirt, up through midget, and they end up playing with each other in junior B.
“So I think that’s kind of the advantage that we have — our local kids play together their whole careers pretty much.”
It was a similar story back in Spence’s day, with his own championship squad made up of many a cousin and close friend. That familial bond hasn’t faded, given the Juniors legend’s relationship with the club’s new league-leading offensive dynamo, Tyrome Spence.
“He’s my little cousin,” Mike Spence says with a chuckle. “Good kid, really good kid.… Tyrome, Quinton (Flett) and Ethan (Daniels), they all played with each other since squirts. That’s their top line right now. They played with each other since they’re little guys — that’s why they’re so dominant right now.”
The younger Spence has run through the KJHL on quite a tear this season, to the tune of a staggering 59 goals and 90 points through 20 games.
“He’s in a league of his own,” says Bear. “Has eyes on the back of his head. Tyrome comes from a hockey family that has always been very supportive — his cousins and dad, along with his uncle, have all suited up for the Juniors.”
With the younger Spence now barrelling towards a likely scoring title – sitting with a 14-point and 19-goal lead on the league’s next-highest scorer – he’s been sure to throw in a playful dig or two at his cousin and recent coach.
“He keeps bringing up my scoring titles when I played. He keeps bugging me about it,” Mike Spence says, laughing. Mike led the league in scoring twice in his day, finishing among the top three point-getters a few other times as well. “I tell him, ‘Go for it, man. Do what you can.’ I’ll be proud of him for what he does. He’s my little cousin.”
The impact of Tyrome’s offensive wizardry and his club’s run of championships has been far-reaching.
“The kids always want to go to the games,” says Dawn Bear, registrar for the Peguis Minor Hockey Association. “All of our youth, they really look up to our Junior B club.”
Coupled with the opening of the rink, the Juniors’ success has helped spur a new, much-needed wave of programs in Peguis First Nation.
“We have female teams now,” Dawn says. “We started off with about 80 players, now we’re at about 220 players a year. This year, we’re working closer with Interlake (Minor Hockey Association) and Hockey Manitoba to build our female numbers … to create female hockey in the Interlake, rather than our girls having to travel two, three hours to join a team. Our hopes for next year are to have an atom, pee-wee and under-18 league within the Interlake.”
It’s an initiative Dawn helped spark herself, her own history with the game granting her a unique understanding of the importance of bringing programs like these to Peguis First Nation.
“I was a hockey player, and we didn’t really have female hockey around here. So, when I came on the Association, it was something I really tried to push for, just to get the girls more involved,” she says. “I have three daughters, and they started playing about five years ago, which kind of surprised me because they never showed an interest in it until around the time the arena was built…. I’m just really happy that they can have that same experience of what it’s like to be on a female team and play against other female teams.”
To hear Dawn and others tell it, hockey has more than triumphantly returned to Peguis First Nation over the past half-decade. And so has the local support in the home barn.
“To score a goal in our place, as a Peguis player, well let me tell you what it sounds like,” says Lawrence Bear. “It’s like AC/DC’s song, Thunderstruck. I (used to play) this tune as the (Juniors) made their way out onto the ice.
“I was sending a message to the visiting team — that we be like thunder, and we were ready to rumble.”