Indigenous hockey player plans to help his home community after finishing school

Tony Apetagon wouldn’t take off his hockey skates.

It didn’t matter if he was on or off the ice, as a young boy growing up at Norway House, Apetagon was almost always on his skates.

“He was walking around my living room with his skates on, punching holes in the wall with his hockey stick,” said his father, Anthony, who gave then-four-year-old Apetagon his first pair of skates. .

“Holes can be patched and tiles can be replaced, right? But getting that strength in your ankles and legs was key.”

When Apetagon’s skates weren’t cutting through the floor of his family home, they were on the ice at the Kinosao Sipi Multiplex.

“My dad threw me on the ice with nothing more than a chair and I fell in love instantly,” said Apetagon, now 23.

“I was always bugging him to go to the rink.”

Fortunately for him, Anthony was the manager of the multiplex at the time. Apetagon took full advantage of this as he often hit the ice before and after school.

“When I was growing up, hockey was pretty much everything. I always played mini sticks, hockey video games, watched hockey videos, and watched hockey whenever it was on TV. Hockey was everything and that’s all I wanted to do,” Apetagon said. .

Tony Apetagon started playing hockey in his home community of Norway House after his father gave him his first pair of skates. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press)

A few skate sizes later, 16-year-old Apetagon traveled to Thompson to play for the Norman Northstars of the Manitoba U18 AAA Hockey League. While on a trip to Winnipeg, the team attended a Manitoba Bisons hockey game at Wayne Fleming Arena.

“I remember thinking, ‘I really want to play here one day,'” Apetagon said.

After two seasons with the Northstars, the forward put his talents to use with the Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) Storm of the Keystone Junior Hockey League. Apetagon turned it on in his lone Junior “B” season, scoring 43 goals and adding 59 assists in 34 games. His talent for finding the back of the net led him to make the jump to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League the following year with the OCN Blizzard.

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“He came in at 18, but it felt like he was 20. He was mature, a really good kid on and off the ice who really understood the game and had an extremely strong hockey IQ. high,” said Storm general manager Jeremy Hohn.

“There were a few games where things didn’t go the way we wanted, but his work ethic was still there for the full 60 minutes. We would be down three or four goals with three or four minutes to go, but you saw him there always making hard backchecks and playing on the 200 feet of ice. It was a huge thing that pushed him to the next level of his career.

Apetagon played for the Blizzard for a year and a half before requesting a trade to a playoff team. The rebuilding Blizzard granted their top scorer’s wish by sending him and defenseman Darren Gisti to the Winnipeg Blues at the league’s trade deadline in 2019. It was Apetagon’s first time living in the big city, but he felt comfortable thanks to Gisti. . Apetagon asked Gisti, a Winnipegger, if he could live with him and his family instead of being placed in a cantonment and the Gisti said yes.

Apetagon registered a goal and an assist in his debut game for the Blues. He finished with 25 points in 18 games but failed to get Winnipeg over the hump as they lost in the first round to the Steinbach Pistons. But half a season was enough for Apetagon to make a strong impression.

“(Former Blues head coach) Billy Keane told (Bisons men’s hockey head coach) Mike Sirant all about me. So after our last playoff game when we were eliminated, I immediately got a text from Mike saying he wanted me to visit campus for a tour and he really wanted me on the team,” Apetagon said.

“At the time, I had other options. I had the opportunity to play in Toronto for York University, but I’m a homeboy. I just decided to stay home and play for the Bisons… It was a dream come true.

Apetagon has three goals in nine games with the Bisons so far this season.  (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press)

Apetagon has three goals in nine games with the Bisons so far this season. (Mike Deal/Winnipeg Free Press)

Apetagon had to bide his time as a rookie, spending the first few months of the season out of training. But in a home game on Oct. 27, 2019, against the UBC Thunderbirds, Apetagon finally got his chance.

“The day before the game, Mike said to me, ‘You better be ready tomorrow’ and I whispered to myself, ‘I have three months of preparation for you.’ It was my birthday, actually, and I scored. My first game and my first goal on my birthday was pretty special,” Apetagon said.

“It was also a very nice goal. It was a backhand, top shelf.”

Apetagon, who has scored three goals in nine games for the Herd this season, tries to return to Norway House four to five times a year. When making the eight-hour drive to the northern community of about 8,000 people, Apetagon always makes sure to have ice time at the multiplex. He usually ends up having a mini cheering section as the little kids at the rink will watch him skate and ask him for his stick afterwards.

“As a parent, this is one of the things that makes me so proud. I’m glad he’s a good role model for other kids,” said Anthony, now a member of the Norway House Cree Nation Council Chief’s Leadership Group. .

“When he comes back I go to the rink and watch him play with the other young men and women in the community and the kids watching ask me ‘How did Tony get so good?’ and I tell them it takes a lot of hard work, effort and staying the course.”

Apetagon is only in his second year of eligibility with the Bisons, but he’s already planning his life after hockey. He wouldn’t mind trying his hand at professional play for a season or two, but the Kinesiology and Recreation Management major is determined to return to Norway House to make a difference.

“I want to go home and help my community as best I can, especially with sports,” he said.

“I know that sport can open a lot of doors and I am living proof of that. In our country there are a lot of drugs, alcohol and mental illnesses. I know that sport cannot solve it completely, but he can take some of that pain and stress away. It’s been my plan for a long time, since I was growing up.

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen

Eighteen-year-old and still in high school, Taylor made his Free Press debut on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.

Catherine J. Martinez