After 21 seasons, the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League (MJHL) announced that they will be ceasing operations of the team effective next season. The northernmost team in the MJHL has enjoyed a lot of success, winning the championship five times in a row between the years 1999-2003.
The Blizzard have been apart of the fabric of OCN and it will be an incredible loss to the town if the Blizzard pack their bags. The chief council has decided to stop supporting the team financially which puts the team in a real bind, forcing them to look elsewhere for money.
Jaret Schneider, the play-by-play man for the Blizzard for the past three years, said that right now it is about getting community support for the team.
“We want the community to back us as much as they can,” he said. “Biggest tool would be social media, Facebook, Twitter and to get it out to all the media outlets.”
Schneider has seen what kind of impact the Blizzard has had on the community, and what kind of impact the community has had on the team. OCN has long been a supporter of Aboriginal hockey players in northern Manitoba providing them a place to play and develop their hockey skills. The community will do whatever is possible to keep the team playing at the Gordon Lathlin Memorial Centre.
“I’ve seen the fans that have come out and support the team, so it’ll be a devastating loss for the community,” Schneider said. “Especially in some of these smaller northern towns, hockey is everything, there is a real love for the game.”
The OCN Blizzard have had many players come from smaller northern towns, in particular, star defenseman Brady Keeper, who hails from Cross Lake Manitoba, a community 120 kilometres south of Thompson. Keeper has committed to the University of Maine Division I NCAA hockey program next year which was ranked 54th in the U.S. last season. Keeper grew up a fan of the OCN Blizzard and was able to develop as a player close to home.
“He was able to foster his hockey skills here with the Blizzard, and he’s been able to take his hockey to the next level and have opportunities to go play in the NCAA and potentially some level of professional hockey,” Schneider said.
One of the most famous OCN Blizzard alumni is Jordin Tootoo, who currently plays for the Chicago Blackhawks in the NHL. Tootoo played for the Blizzard in 1998-99, racking up 37 points in 47 games en route to an MJHL championship.
Tootoo released a statement on Twitter following the news of OCN shutting its doors, expressing his support for the team.
“The OCN Blizzard will always have a special place in my heart, especially because it provided me with the only opportunity I had to play competitively with my brother Terence,” he wrote. “The organization also served as a support system for the Aboriginal people and contributed to their lives in such a positive way.”
Adam Heinemann, who is playing his final season with the Blizzard, grew up and played minor hockey in Winnipeg. He was traded to the OCN Blizzard from the Portage Terriers and was able to find his groove with the team.
“The three years that I have spent in OCN have been unforgettable,” the defenseman said. “I’ve met so many great people in my time here and I know that I will never play hockey in a place with as much passion and love for hockey as OCN.”
Efforts to save the team are in full swing, as the community met on Jan. 5 to gather support for the Blizzard. The meeting was a success, with plenty of new people signed up to help out the team, whether it be helping with a 50/50 fundraiser, helping out at the gate, or other game-day operations. The OCN board will meet with the council in the coming weeks to make their case to keep the team in OCN. The deadline to commit for the 2017-18 season is Mar. 31.