Fort Hope, Ont., is known for endless wilderness, fishing on the lake, and now, hockey.

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The small community is only accessible by plane during the summer months. Once the the temperature drops below freezing, the lake is used as a road.

For students at John C. Yesno Education Centre, they take to the ice — or the road — to play hockey from January to March.

“We wait all year for the ice to freeze so we can put the nets out and play hockey,” said Leon Atlookan, head coach of the John C. Yesno Education Centre Rez Girls 64 Wolves.  “Our ice surface is natural, unlike the smooth ones down south.”

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Coach Atlookan has manned the bench for the group of teenagers from the Eabametoong First Nation for three years. Before that first season, the girls were asked by the general manager, Allison Norman, and coach Atlookan what they would like to be called, and they all agreed that because they live on Reservation No. 64, they should go by ‘Rez Girls 64’.

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Last week, the team jumped on a small charter plane and travelled an hour and half to Thunder Bay. From there, they flew to Toronto and took a bus the rest of the way to Kingston for the Kids for Kids hockey tournament.

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The nearly 2,000-kilometre trip was made possible with the help of a Kingston family.

“It started at a granular level with us hearing about these incredible girls on a podcast after they experienced racism at a tournament,” said Steve Koopman.

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Koopman and his wife flew to Fort Hope last May to meet the team and ask how they can help, and one of the most glaring holes, according to the hockey team, was the lack of ice time.

“After visiting with them we began fundraising to get them a proper ice surface. They didn’t have a concrete base, making it difficult to keep an even ice surface,” Koopman said.

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According to Koopman, the team and people across southeastern Ontario have helped raise over $90,000, but when asked about why the team came to Kingston, Atlookan made it clear: it wasn’t because they were forced. Rather, the girls wanted to pay their respects to the Koopmans for their generosity.

“The girls wanted to come here to Kingston because it was for the Kids for Kids and they wanted to give back, because the Koopmans and other Kingstonians helped out so much last year,” Atlookan said.

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“So they wanted to come back where Kaity and Steve [Koopman] were from.”

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Atlookan continued to say that the team’s goal is take home the tournament’s championship trophy, but if they fall short, this weekend has been life-changing for him and the group of girls.

“We are a family, and whether we win or lose, we want to make the most of this opportunity,” said Atlookan.

The team plans to do some sightseeing in Kingston and Toronto before flying back to Fort Hope for the off-season.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

‘We are a family, whether we win or lose’: Kingston welcomes ‘Rez Girls’ hockey club


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