Sask. First Nation girls hockey team practises at Madison Square Garden
Gracie Arcand will never forget her March 16 practice with the Big River First Nation U-15 Rangers.
That's because the practice wasn't on their home rink back in northern Saskatchewan.
Instead, the squad practised at what is arguably the most famous venue in sports — New York City's Madison Square Garden — along with coaches from the NHL's New York Rangers.
"It's New York — it's such a big city, it's my dream place and I finally got to go there with my besties," Arcand, 15, said.
"Madison Square Garden is very big. It was very exciting because that's where the New York Rangers play."
Brenda Cromartie, the co-ordinator for Big River First Nation Reserve Hockey, says she got chills when she saw her players step on the ice of an arena that houses more than 20,000 seats.
"It was important for the girls so they could see what else is out there besides an hour and a half off their community," which is located about 120 kilometres northwest of Prince Albert, said Cromartie.
"If you work hard, you could attain it — the possibilities are vast, and I think they have realized that now."
Seventeen players, 12 parents, five chaperones and three coaches made the more than 3,500-kilometre trip to New York City.
Cromartie says the girls experienced Broadway, shopped, watched the Rangers take on the Pittsburgh Penguins and became the first team other than the New York Rangers to practise on their new training ice.
"Every step they took they were in awe," Cromartie said. "Everything meant so much to them."
How the team made it to MSG
She said the late NHL player Jim Neilson is largely to thank for providing the opportunity for the girls.
Neilson, who died in 2020, was born in Big River in 1941 and grew up in a Prince Albert orphanage before launching a distinguished NHL career, spending 12 out of his 16 seasons with the New York Rangers.
"Without his namesake I'm not sure this would have happened," said Cromartie.
Last June, the Jim Neilson Sports Complex opened on the Big River First Nation, and all of the First Nation's girls teams are called the Big River First Nation Rangers.
Members from the NHL's Rangers, including former winger Adam Graves, came for the opening. The organization helped provide funding to make the girls' change rooms mimic the ones in Madison Square Garden.
When the First Nation reached out to the NHL team with the idea of a visit, the New York Rangers happily accepted. Cromartie says the community was crucial in making the trip a reality.
"We had to do some fundraising and then Child and Family Services helped us out, Education helped us out," Cromartie said.
"It was awesome."
Cromartie says this may not be the last time girls from the Big River First Nation make the trip to the Big Apple, as the hockey program is working on creating a cultural exchange with kids from Harlem.
The kids from New York have "never seen deer, a porcupine, anything like that," said Cromartie. "I think with our First Nation culture that they will have an awakening experience, for sure."
'The stuff of dreams'
Sylvia McAdam, a Big River First Nation council member, accompanied the team on their trip to New York. Watching the girls' excitement as they stepped on the ice was the highlight for her.
"This is the stuff of spiritual memory," McAdam said. "They will be telling their grandchild about this — skating there and being mentored by these high-calibre coaches. This is the stuff of dreams."
McAdam hopes the trip will encourage other First Nations to create more sporting opportunities for their girls.
"The young women need to see spaces open up for them in an area of sport," McAdam said. "The fact that the New York Rangers did this, it's just breaking the glass ceiling, and I love that."
During the March 16 practice, the Rangers coaches emphasized the importance of guarding the puck and keeping it away from your zone, but that's not all Echo Whitefish learned on her trip to New York.
The 14-year-old centre says skating at Madison Square Garden opened her eyes to opportunities outside Saskatchewan.
"It was really big compared to my rez. It made me want to travel more," Whitefish said.
"Anything is possible."