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It’s amazing that something as simple and pure as an outdoor hockey rink can bring a community together, but the proof is very much in the pudding.

For the fifth time, the BCEHL will hold its Winter Classic, this year set for January 19-21, 2024, in Fort St. James and Vanderhoof bringing together four total games – two each (one indoor and one outdoor) in the Female U18 league and U18 league.

Roughly 2,500 fans took in last year’s Winter Classic, held at the Ernie Sam Memorial Arena on the proud and traditional lands of the Nak’azdli Whut’en, near Fort St. James.

The Northern Capitals will take on the Vancouver Island Seals in female play, while on the integrated side, the Cariboo Cougars will battle the Okanagan Rockets.

“For us it’s a real good week to bring community together in Fort St. James and to be able to invite people from outside into our community, to see our services, the people and the friendly atmosphere. It really showcases our community as a very inviting, welcoming community,” said Aileen Prince, the Chief of Nak’azdli Whut’en.

Prince has been involved since her term started four years ago after previous chief Alec McKinnon approved the idea once it was brought to him by Cariboo Cougars and Northern Capitals General Manager Trevor Sprague.

“It’s something that was created by me just driving and thinking, ‘Hey, why don’t we get an outdoor game?’” said Sprague, who sells fuel in the territory. “I saw the rink, with the outdoor roof on it, and the glass, the boards, were all there, and I thought, ‘this would be perfect for an outdoor game.’”

He approached McKinnon at the time and said: “Let’s do it. That’s how it all kind of came about, but what it’s also about is our players giving back to the community,” said Sprague.

“They get to see the potential of hockey, where it’s at these days and how they could be a part of it. We do school visits, and we also work with the Fort St. James Minor Hockey Association with chalk talks and our coaches go out and work a few practises with them.”

It’s become a community festival of sorts.

“We advertise it very well and we usually have a pretty good crowd coming out,” said Prince. “It intensifies the community to improve the outdoor rink that we have.”

Bleachers and change rooms have been established for fans and players and the Nak’azdli Whut’en even have a Zamboni that they received through NHL Players’ Association funding.

“The only thing we worry about is the weather because it’s an outdoor rink. It’s depending on it being cold and it’s not always cold. We usually have fans from Prince George coming up and it’s neat to see that many people out on our reserve,” added Prince.

“Locally it’s jampacked, the community is really involved and it’s awesome,” confirmed Sprague. “The cheering is so loud and it’s standing room only, with the fans right on top of you, so it’s a pretty cool experience for the players.

“It’s natural ice so if it’s plus-two (Celsius) out, they’re probably not going to have a game. Anywhere from minus-five to -15 is perfect. We fit 2,500 last year. There’s so much walk up because it’s not fenced or anything and the community is great with the support. It brings the band and Fort St. James together; they all help to make it move forward.”

Taylor Siemens, a local player from Vanderhoof, will be competing in her second straight Winter Classic as she was an affiliated player with the Northern Capitals last year.

“There were full stands in Vanderhoof (for the indoor game) and in Fort St. James there were a ton of people watching and not much room for very many more,” recalled the 15-year-old defender. “It was very cool. There are a lot of people who came out to support us and it’s a big community event. Last year wasn’t very cold, -10, but the ice was nice and very solid.

“I’m really looking forward to it again,” added Siemens, who played most of her minor hockey in Vanderhoof. “I think (the Winter Classic) is very important. I think it’s pretty cool, especially for all the younger girls and minor hockey players to come out and watch us play.”

Mario Annicchiarico is a freelance writer based in Victoria who has previously covered the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers, as well as the Western Hockey League.