This story is part of a series by CBC’s Eskasoni Community Bureau, based at the Sarah Denny Cultural Centre. This series stems from weeks of conversations with community members about what they think is important to see, hear and read on CBC platforms.
Hockey flags can be found on cars, clothing, and windows in the neighborhood. And biting banter about last night’s game swirls around a cafe in Eskasoni, Nova Scotia
“Eskasoni breathes and lives,” said hockey coach Levi Denny, someone who has dedicated his life to improving the sport in his community.
Grow the game
Denny said NHL games are the talk of the town. In the Stanley Cup playoffs, old rivalries are reignited.
“It’s an interesting time of year,” Denny said. “You can be someone’s best friend, but you’re playing against them. It’s a bit difficult.
“There are always friendly bets happening and intense fun conversations – and analysis.”
In recent years, the sport has taken off in Nova Scotia’s largest Mi’kmaq community, home to approximately 5,000 people.
At least 250 children participate in minor or after-school hockey programs, and there are now five times more female players than just a few years ago.
But it’s hard to pinpoint why the community is so passionate about the game.
Denny assumes it has something to do with the high caliber players who have lived in the community.
Among them is Roger Stevens.
The 75-year-old started playing hockey as a teenager on a frozen creek near his home. Stevens helped grow the number of hockey teams in Eskasoni, and many consider him a legend of Mi’kmaq hockey.
“My family, maybe they think of me as Wayne Gretzky,” he said. “And they follow me. They want to do what I do.”
“Natural setting for hockey”
In the 1960s and 1970s, Stevens said a frozen piece of Bras d’Or Lake called him.
“It was just a natural setting for hockey,” he said.
“There aren’t many boys who grew up in Crane Cove who never played hockey. Maybe just a handful. If the ice cream was good, I’d be there at 7 a.m. ’cause you’d just watch And we’d have a bonfire and play all night.
Stevens said Eskasoni’s first hockey team was established in the 1940s, before he arrived.
They were known as the Eskasoni Eagles and the team trained outdoors in the winter with no lights or lines painted on the ice. His father, Dan K. Stevens, was a semi-professional player who spent 12 years with the Eagles.
“You had to be good to play,” Stevens said.
“My dad, he played against everyone he knew at Millbrook — you know, his brother was on the other team — but Eskasoni and Membertou were a big rivalry.”
Stevens said Mi’kmaw players from across the Maritimes came out to compete.
In Nova Scotia, they met at the ice rinks in Truro or North Sydney. He would eventually join the Eagles, but he was unhappy with his ice time so he created a team known as the Eskasoni Red Devils in 1959.
“We never won championships, but we had fun,” he said.
“There are a few guys with the Eagles who have played junior hockey or senior hockey, but we don’t have [go very far] because we couldn’t afford it.”
Indoor ice rink
Dan K. Stevens would become head of Eskasoni in the late 1960s and compelled his family to start a fundraising campaign for an indoor skating rink.
The project was not completed under his leadership, but the rink will open in 2005 under his namesake.
During the regular hockey season, hundreds of fans now flock to the Dan K. Stevens Arena for games played by local teams.
In the 2018-19 season, a new Eskasoni Eagles team began playing in the Nova Scotia Junior Hockey League, featuring a mix of Indigenous and non-Indigenous players.
Denny said he hopes Eskasoni hockey fans enjoy the games for decades.
“It’s a life-changing thing – no matter what level you play – being part of a team, and enjoying an ice rink is just a phenomenal feeling.”