Saskatoon’s Indigenous Sports activities Academy Eagles hovering into second season

Courage Bear has spent his life around the game of hockey, whether as a player or giving back to the youth as a coach.

For over two decades Bear, who hails from Ochapawace First Nation, has spent his winters behind the bench. Whether it’s with his U18 AAA Warman Wildcats, or the many years he’s spent as the head coach for Team Saskatchewan at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships.

A long time dream of the long-tenured coach had been to create a platform and program for Indigenous hockey players to learn and grow both on and off the ice, and this past year his dream came to fruition with the inaugural season of the Indigenous Sports Academy Eagles.

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“It’s so rewarding,” ISA Founding Director Bear said. “The games have been great to me and I’m hoping that we can build young men and ladies in the future that are contributing citizens, and that’s the end goal of our program.”

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The team’s first year of existence didn’t come easily. The team played as at a traveling academy, playing only in tournaments and exhibition contests.

“You’re just trying to build your schedule when a lot of teams already have their schedules built, but we were fortunate to play in a bunch of showcases in Western Canada, as well as lots of local teams that were willing to play us, Bear said. “I think we played close to 48 games this year, so that equivalent to any other U17 or U18 program.”

“It was a hard year,” head coach Greg Slobodzian admitted. “We had a rough schedule, there’s constantly things being added. COVID was still sort of going on so there were a few tournaments that we weren’t able to attend.”

The scheduling unknowns are now a thing of the past for ISA, as this spring the team was admitted to the Canadian Sports School Hockey League, a prestigious league of academy teams based across North America, becoming just the third program in Saskatchewan to garner acceptance.

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“We’re excited, I mean we kind of didn’t know whether to believe it at first when they said we’d been the 26th team accepted,” Bear said.

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“When we got word that we were accepted, I giggled all day, you know, (I) almost shed some tears,” Slobodzian added.

The on-ice portion of the program is only one component experienced by these academy athletes. They are also helped with training in the gym, nutrition and the high performance flex program through Saskatoon’s City Park Collegiate.

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“City Park has been awesome, they’ve been really supportive at helping us adjust and helping the kids adjust, it’s been a great relationship,” Bear said.

“I honestly loved it,” Eagles forward Jake Yakubowski said. “We only had to go to school in the mornings, so you get to miss a lot of school,”

The team is predominantly composed of Saskatchewan-based talent, but the program also welcomes players from across the country, something Bear hopes will only continue to grow as the academy does.

“We’d like to add a U15 team in the coming years, and then add a female program,” he said.

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While the players grew both on the ice and in the classroom, they also began to build a culture for the program, something that’s imperative to the organization’s growth.

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“Building tradition from nothing, that’s not easy,” Slobodzian said. “Now we’ve got a good foothold and the foundation’s been laid, so now building on top of that is what next years going to be about.”

“I’d say by the second half of the season we were all bonded and we were all good friends,” Eagles forward Sage Roberts added. “I think that helped us on the ice.”

“It’s pretty cool, being a vet, you get to come back and light the way for the younger kids,” Yakubowski said.

Although the workload was more demanding than anything that most of these athletes had ever faced, they persevered through the trials and tribulations together.

The 2023 Eagles are set to return about half of their players, which will provide plenty of veteran leadership, and as one returning vet put it: there’s no place he’d rather be.

“It’s every high school kid’s dream,” Yakubowski chuckled. “You get to skip school and go play hockey all day long, so it’s pretty awesome.”

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