It looked like a typical night at Takhini Arena on Tuesday evening. Young hockey players were walking in with their bags and sticks headed toward the dressing rooms. Parents stood chatting with each other, coffee in hand.
On the ice, a group of skaters began stepping onto the rink to begin what would appear to be a practice. Then four players stepped onto the ice and you knew it was not going to be your ordinary night at the arena.
Jamie Leach, J.S. Aubin, Reggie Leach and Blair Atcheynum stepped out onto the ice to run the athletes through some drills. The former NHLers were also joined in Whitehorse by Arron Asham, Brian Trottier, John Chabot, and Ric Nattress.
The eight retired NHL players were in Whitehorse as part of the 2019 NHL Indigenous Alumni Tour presented by the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN).
It is a whirlwind trip through the territory for the alumni. They arrived in the Yukon last Sunday and made their way to Whitehorse by way of Carcross on Tuesday. The players were only in Whitehorse for half the day, enough time to run the skills and drills for the novice and atom players.
They left Whitehorse for Ross River and are concluding their trip in Dawson City.
CYFN Grand Chief Peter Johnston said bringing the alumni tour to the territory is about celebrating hockey in the communities while also providing a positive message.
'It's about celebrating hockey because hockey is a huge sport in the north," said Johnston. "But at the end of the day, it's about providing a positive message and a positive role model. The message is clear that hard work and determination will pay off.
"Follow your dreams because if you believe in what you are doing and you are making good decisions in your life good things naturally happen. All these guys that are here with us, not all of them grew up in an ideal situation. They didn't have the support from family or the community and battled the barriers if you will and now have found success."
For some of the alumni players, this is their second time travelling to the Yukon as part of the tour.
Aubin, a former goalie for the Penguins, Leafs, and Kings, is in his second year with the tour. He said being part of the tour is his way of giving back.
"It is so much fun for us to come here and first of all it is beautiful," said Aubin. "It's giving back. (We are) trying to help the communities talking about them about staying in school, the importance of being in school. All the positive outtakes that when you are older, you look back and are proud of yourself that you did that stuff rather than going the other way."
Hockey is the common outlet to get the message across.
"Hockey brings people together," said Aubin. "By using hockey, it is a great platform for us to come back and get our message across that with hard work you can accomplish a lot."
The skills and drills clinic was divided into two sessions. First were the novice players and followed by the atom division. After the first clinic had ended, the players took a break in the dressing room - break may be the wrong word, as all the kids on the ice with them came through to get their autographs.
It was hectic and busy in the small room but everyone from the players to the kids had wide smiles as they all enjoyed the moment.
Jamie Leach, a former right winger for the Penguins, has been to the Yukon many times before and said it gets better every time he comes up. Having been to the Yukon on the tour before he can see how the kids progress.
"Especially today, I recognize a lot of the faces even if I don't remember the names," said Jamie. "One of the things that we do, Reggie and I do, with our hockey program when we do go to places like this is it's neat to see how the kids progress every year and that makes us feel good."
Jamie said he and the fellow alumni try and teach the kids something new when they come for their visits.
"I know what we did last year so we always come in and give them a different look," said Jamie while signing a player’s jersey. "The kids have a good time; it's something different something they haven't see before and they are all getting autographs and having fun."
Jamie Leach's dad, Reggie, was also a right winger for the Bruins, California Golden Seals, Flyers and Red Wings. He is most known for his time with the Flyers, winning the Stanley Cup in 1975.
Having been to the Yukon on several occasions, Reggie said coming back to the territory is like coming home.
"It is wonderful," said Reggie. "I've been here a few other times and it is like coming home. There are so many people that I know and they are so kind to us when we come into their communities. The kids are great to work with. Everything is just perfect. I look forward to this trip every year."
While on the tour, the players will also speak in schools throughout the communities along with the on-ice sessions. Reggie says he enjoys travelling with the tour because he still learns something from the kids in the communities.
"I hope this continues on over the years," said Reggie. "I think it's good for the communities and especially the youth that we talk to. Plus it's good for us. We learn from the kids, we learn from the communities. Every community you go into is different and we learn a lot about their culture."
On his trip so far, Reggie said, the traditional songs sung to him by the kids from Carcross is something he will remember for a long time.
"Just listening to the kids in Carcross today, they were singing their traditional songs," said Reggie. "It was really warm to my heart. It is something I will remember for a long time."
Reggie hopes his message of choice leaves a lasting impression on the kids.
"I think the biggest thing about what I talk about is choices in life," said Reggie. "Whatever choice you make, you own that choice, good or bad. I think it is very important for our young kids to know to take ownership for good and bad choices and be accountable for them."
Atcheynum, a former winger for the Senators, Predators, Blues, and Blackhawks. It was his first time being in the Yukon.
"It has been a very unique experience in regards to how tight the communities have been and how warm and welcoming everyone is here," said Atcheynum.
During the clinics, Atcheynum was impressed with the kids' work ethic.
"The kids are phenomenal in regards to how they listen and they work they put in today," said Atcheynum. "You didn't have to say things twice. They were tuned-in and engaged in everything we had been doing."
Atcheynum really appreciated Johnston bringing them to the territor and seeing the bigger picture.
"It is a positive environment to chase our dreams," said Atcheynum. "The game of hockey has given me a lot. One of the gifts I look at on this trip is hockey has given me the opportunity of coming up here to meet all these people."
While talking with the kids Atcheynum's message to them was to just go for it.
"Chasing dreams and believing in yourself," said Atcheynum. "With everybody that is here, our careers have all been different and all have different levels of experience all at the NHL level. At the end of the day, we all chased a dream and a passion to play hockey and that was our avenue to get out of where we were and make life better for ourselves.
"The spinoff isn't always money. These are the real experiences you cherish when everything is said and done and I look forward to being in these situations."
Hockey is just the platform used by the tour to get their message across. The values learned at the rink, hard work, teamwork, and togetherness can be applied to any path one desires.
"You hope something you say lights a lightbulb or sparks something," said Atcheynum. "Hockey is the avenue we are using to send a message but we stress everything. Like being in school, really follow your education. You can be a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, those can be anybody's dreams but you have to work hard to accomplish those and that is what we are trying to enforce.
"The game of hockey is about winning and losing but the game of life everyone has an opportunity to win. Everybody can succeed together. It is about the whole neighbourhood being successful."
Atcheynum said there probably wasn't a McDavid in the crowd, but the kids were willing to work hard and that they were having fun. Which at this point is what he said hockey should be about.
Johnston said that CYFN is committed to supporting the youth by bringing in programs such as the alumni tour.
"For us at CYFN, our mandate is together today for our children tomorrow," said Johnston. "The more we can support our youth through different initiatives such as this it brings positiveness to the communities that may be struggling.
"We have had a lot of death in the communities just from different realities. So when you can bring a little relief into the community and it's positive and everyone is engaged and it's not just for the kids. We have elders who are loving the attention of people like Reggie Leach and Brian Trottier, who are elders now. They love that they are hear playing hockey."
Even though it was the kids on the ice with the players in Whitehorse the event was for everyone. Adults could be heard throughout the arena pointing and sharing nostalgic moments of watching Trottier or Leach.
As well, you could see a number of the parents in attendance showing off their hockey cards of the eight players at the rink.
Johnston said it is attracting a lot of people and bringing the community together.
"It brings a lot of value," said Johnston. "If we can affect one child in a positive way to see things different or give them a break from their reality that's what it is all about."