TRYING OUT--Nunavut athletes Dustin Aleekuk (left) and Keiran Panioyak (right) traveled from their home town in Kugluktuk to try out for the Rockies hockey team.

TRYING OUT–Nunavut athletes Dustin Aleekuk (left) and Keiran Panioyak (right) traveled from their home town in Kugluktuk to try out for the Rockies hockey team.

Hockey can be a gruelling sport to try and make it to the top. Between the physicality and the time requirement needed to become exceptional, few are able to make it to the junior hockey level never mind the fabled NHL.

Living in Kugluktuk, Nunavut, with access to the sport only four months of the year without ever facing body contact, makes the journey to junior hockey exponentially more difficult for Keiran Panioyak, 17, and Dustin Aleekuk, 18, who recently travelled to Invermere for the Columbia Valley Rockies 2016-17 training camp.

For the two young hockey players, the process has been a long way in the making. Const. Tim Harper, a former RCMP officer in the Columbia Valley detachment who now lives in Kugluktuk, had been in conversation with the Rockies for several years about the possibility of bringing a couple of the top players from the small town of 1,400 to Invermere for a tryout.

Through playing in the adult league in Kugluktuk, Const. Harper identified two young players in Mr. Panioyak and Mr. Aleekuk who would be best suited to make the trip south and transition into a more professional style of hockey.

There were others, Const. Harper said, but these two were the two who were able to compete in the mens league at such a young age and started dominating and stood out on their own just by their pure skill.

At first, the two were nervous, he said, at the thought of leaving home to go to an unknown place they had never been before. Yet, they packed their bags and began their journey south to Invermere last week, not knowing when they would return home if they proved successful in making the Rockies.

On the trip down, Const. Harper said he tried to impart on them the culture shock that they would experience, not only off the ice, but on the ice as well.

Its definitely a totally different style of hockey, he said. Its faster play down here, theres more structure down here and they dont get a lot of guidance up there with no developmental programs like they have down here.

After playing a pick-up game on the evening of Thursday, August 25th upon arrival, the pair told The Pioneer they were already shocked at how fast the game was in comparison to back home. As well as the speed, Mr. Aleekuk said he couldnt believe how talented the goaltenders were in comparison to his northern counterparts.

The biggest difference, however, was that, unlike in Kugluktuk, the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League and many minor and amateur leagues in B.C. allow for body contact. This was their first experience playing the sport they loved while having an opponent trying to physically knock them off their skates.

Fortunately, both were able to walk away from the tryout camp despite Mr. Aleekuk taking a headshot and Mr. Panioyak having to quit due to a knee injury he sustained on a collision with an opponent. As part of the player selection process, both were told by team management they did not make the team as of Sunday afternoon.

Despite this unfortunate reality, both Mr. Aleekuk and Mr. Panioyak insist the trip was a good experience for them with many lessons they can share with kids in minor hockey once they return to Kugluktuk.

These two kids are role models for younger kids in town because younger kids know theyre coming down here now, Const. Harper said. Theyll be able to go back, share their experiences and show that there are other opportunities outside of their town and this could lead to going to college and playing hockey at college or other doors and show them that through sport they could also get some scholarships to further their education too.

With no artificial ice in their small community, Mr. Aleekuk and Mr. Panioyak will have to wait until late December or early January before its cold enough to naturally freeze enough ice before they can skate again. Only then will they be able to take the next stride toward their hockey futures.