As a scout for the WHL’s Prince Albert Raiders, David Neilson has spent countless hours in hockey rinks over his life.
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Watching games on the Big River First Nation in the arena that bears his father’s name, however, goes beyond the scout’s notebook.
“It’s like you’re home, right?” said Neilson. “Like a home away from home.”
“Jim would be very proud and honoured to see this. To see all the activity here and all the people coming out to support hockey here on the Big River First Nation.”
Named after the late New York Ranger who hailed from Big River, the Jim Neilson Sports Complex opened to the community last September after years of planning and construction.
Big River First Nation’s Klein nominated for Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award
For the second year in a row, the facility hosted a pre-season game between the Raiders and Saskatoon Blades on Wednesday, with hundreds in attendance to watch the WHL contest.
Over that year since opening, the community has fielded a dozen competitive teams in both boys and girls divisions according to Big River First Nation CEO Derek Klein.
“We have kids skating every day from 9:00 until 3:00,” said Klein. “Then the minor hockey kicks in until 10:00 at night, so the rink and facility is open seven days a week. It’s been life-changing for the kids out here and for the people out here where they have a safe haven to go.”
As part of the project, Chief John Keenatch High School was also completed and connected to the rink.
Since its grand opening, enrolment at the local high school has increased by over 100 students.
“If you want to play hockey, if you want to play organized lacrosse, you have to go to school,” said Klein.
“With that, we’re bringing kids back into the school. We’re breaking down barriers for the sports, getting them through Grade 12 and obviously becoming successful people.”
The facility has become a gathering place for the Big River community with Hockey Saskatchewan naming the First Nation as their Minor Hockey Association of Distinction for 2023.
Along with Wednesday’s WHL pre-season game, the University of Saskatchewan Huskies and University of Regina Cougars men’s hockey teams are set to play exhibition games this upcoming weekend at the Jim Neilson Sports Complex.
It’s an arena that’s quickly become a success story, pushing for local Indigenous youth to dream big — in sport and beyond.
“Hopefully it lights a little bit of a fire on some kids that there’s a big world out there and to not be afraid or intimidated by it,” said Neilsen.
“Get the education, get the schooling, stay in sports.”
The Huskies and Cougars will hit the ice in Big River on both Friday and Saturday for Canada West pre-season action.
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