Nunavut caps 'once-in-a-lifetime' week with historic win at Canada Winter Games

Nunavut's boys hockey team won its first ever game at the Canada Winter Games on Sunday — making history in the process.

It's a week that both coaches and players have described as "once-in-a-lifetime," so the historic victory was only fitting.

Josie Cote led the way with a pair of goals and an assist in a hard-hitting affair, and goaltender Inuuki Burke stopped 33 shots in a 5–3 win over Team Yukon.

"We come into this tournament as underdogs — it's our first time, it's a big opportunity for us, and the greatest thing was winning our first game in our first Canada Games appearance," Cote said.

"It feels amazing!"

Rod Ince/2019 Canada Winter Games
Rod Ince/2019 Canada Winter Games

And that's quite the statement considering the week Team Nunavut had leading up to its first game.

The team held a three-day training camp in Ottawa earlier in the week, highlighted by a practice at the Canadian Tire Centre — home of the Ottawa Senators — with former Senators Chris Neil and Chris Phillips joining them on the ice as honorary coaches.

That is the best team game I've ever seen a bunch of kids from the middle of nowhere play in my entire life. - Martin Joy, Nunavut boys hockey team head coach

They capped the day by watching the Senators take on the Carolina Hurricanes — another first for many on the team.

Rod Ince/2019 Canada Winter Games
Rod Ince/2019 Canada Winter Games

"A lot of us have never watched an NHL game," said team captain Max Joy. "We're all super excited and grateful."

"It was a great experience to meet the NHLers, [and] getting a chance to skate on the Canadian Tire Centre is a great experience. I loved it," Cote added.

'Lay it out on the ice'

While the boys hockey team has measured expectations on how deep it can make it in the tournament, the team's focus is to soak in the experience and not worry too much on mistakes.

"I think for us, first year there, there's a lot of pressure on the guys," said head coach Martin Joy.

"So our job there is just composure as a team and to go out there and compete hard."

Five different communities are represented on the team: Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet, Coral Harbour, Chesterfield Inlet, and Whale Cove. Few of the players have competed in organized hockey.

Coach Joy said the group is "tight-knit" and have been playing together for about five years.

"Based on our geography and the culture of where we're from, it's an amazing opportunity for these boys to get a chance to come and participate in an event that's life-changing," Joy said.

"We've already surprised ourselves so far getting to where we are after 4 years of work, and we're just excited to get there and lay it all out on the ice."

Max Paris/CBC News
Max Paris/CBC News

'Best team game I've ever seen'

Bradley Fraser, Brayden Uluqsi, and Max Joy all scored for Nunavut in its win against Yukon, before Cote scored the go-ahead-goal midway through the third period on the power play.

Cote later sealed the win with an empty net goal with just 10 seconds left.

In the dressing room after the game, Martin Joy triumphantly held up the game puck to start his post-game speech.

He said no matter what happens from there on out, the puck would be framed and mounted with a picture of the entire team around it.

"That is the best team game I've ever seen a bunch of kids from the middle of nowhere play in my entire life," he told his team, who erupted in cheers.