This story is part of a series from CBC’s Eskasoni Community Bureau, based out of the Sarah Denny Cultural Centre. This series comes from weeks of conversations with community members about what they feel is important to see, hear and read on CBC’s platforms.
Hockey flags can be found on cars, clothing and neighbourhood windows. And biting banter about last night’s game swirls at a coffee shop in Eskasoni, N.S.
“Eskasoni just breathes and lives it,” said hockey coach Levi Denny, someone who has dedicated his life to improving the sport in his community.
Growing the game
Denny said NHL games are the talk of the town. During the Stanley Cup playoffs, old rivalries are reignited.
“It’s an interesting time of year,” Denny said. “You can be somebody’s best friend, but you play against them. It’s a bit of a hard time.
“There’s always friendly wagers that are happening and intense fun conversations — and analyzing.”
In recent years, the sport has taken off in Nova Scotia’s largest Mi’kmaw community, which has roughly 5,000 people.
At least 250 children are in minor hockey or after-school programs, and there are now five times the number of female players compared to just a few years ago.
But just why the community is so passionate about the game is difficult to pinpoint.
Community role models
Denny guesses it has something to do with the high-calibre players who’ve lived in the community.
Among them is Roger Stevens.
The 75-year-old began playing hockey as a teenager on a frozen inlet near his home. Stevens helped grow the number of hockey teams in Eskasoni, and many refer to him as a Mi’kmaw hockey legend.
“My family, they think of me as maybe Wayne Gretzky,” he said. “And they follow me. They want to do what I do.”
‘Natural setting for hockey’
Back in 1960s and 70s, Stevens said a frozen piece of the Bras d’Or Lake called to him.
“It was just a natural setting for hockey,” he said.
“There’s not too many boys that grew up in Crane Cove that never played hockey. Maybe just a handful. If the ice was good, I’d be on it at 7 o’clock in the morning because you’d just be looking at it. And we’d build a bonfire and play all night.”
Stevens said Eskasoni’s first hockey team was created in the 1940s, before his arrival.
They were known as the Eskasoni Eagles and the team practised outdoors in winter with no lights and no lines painted on the ice. His father, Dan K. Stevens, was a semi-professional player who spent 12 years on the Eagles.
Mi’kmaw game play
“You had to be good to play,” Stevens said.
“My father, he played against all the people that he knew in Millbrook — you know, his brother was on the other team — but Eskasoni and Membertou was a big rivalry.”
Stevens said Mi’kmaw players from around the Maritimes travelled to compete against each other.
In Nova Scotia, they’d meet at rinks in Truro or North Sydney. He would eventually join the Eagles, but he wasn’t happy with his ice time so he created a team known as the Eskasoni Red Devils in 1959.
“We never won championships, but we had fun,” he said.
“There’s a couple of guys with the Eagles that played junior hockey, or senior hockey, but we didn’t [go very far] because we couldn’t afford it.”
Dan K. Stevens would become chief of Eskasoni in the late 1960s, and compelled his family to begin a fundraising drive for an indoor rink.
The project wasn’t completed under his leadership, but the rink would open in 2005 as his namesake.
During the regular hockey season, hundreds of fans now flock to the Dan K. Stevens arena for games played by local teams.
In the 2018-2019 season, a new Eskasoni Eagles squad began playing within the Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League, featuring a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous players.
Denny said he hopes Eskasoni’s hockey fans will enjoy games for decades to come.
“It’s a life-changing thing — no matter the level you play at — being part of a team, and enjoying being at a rink is just a phenomenal feeling.”