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Northern Capitals to submit $250K upgrade nomination for outdoor Winter Classic arena

Prince George-based team hosted first-in-Canada contest in Nak’azdli Whut’en

A little more than a year ago, the Northern Capitals made history in hosting Canada’s first-ever outdoor female under-18 AAA hockey game.

The Prince George-based club took on the Greater Vancouver Comets at Ernie Sam Memorial Arena in Nak’azdli Whut’en near Fort St. James, which required several technical, mechanical and constructional efforts to prepare the rink for competitive conditions.

The state of the arena, and the moments it has brought for local fans in the community, is now prompting the Caps to nominate it for the 2021 Kraft Hockeyville challenge, which, if successful, would earn a $250,000 upgrade for Ernie Sam, as well as the chance to host an NHL exhibition game.

For the last two years, zambonis and special rink managers have been brought to Nak’azdli Whut’en to the outdoor multi-sport rink to Hockey Canada standards.

In 2019, the Cariboo Cougars welcomed the Vancouver North East Chiefs for the country’s first outdoor boys Under-18 AAA game, then played against the Vancouver North West Hawks in the same contest 12 months ago.

According to Cariboo Hockey spokesperson Caleb Wilson, the Northern Capitals were approached by Kraft Hockeyville organizers based on the success of the 2020 BC Winter Classic and the traction is received nation-wide.

“We are finalizing our submission to post within the next 24-48 hours, and we are looking for community support to make sure we are selected into the final rounds,” says Wilson.

“This is an incredible opportunity to showcase female hockey in the north, to help further develop the hockey culture in our communities, which is something we strive for within Cariboo Hockey!”

Over that January 2020 weekend, two months before the COVID-19 pandemic reached the region, the Northern Capitals were welcomed by the Nak’azdli Whut’en/Fort St. James community as they drew hundreds of fans, especially young female athletes, to watch and observe top-level hockey.

“I think it was a pretty cool experience,” said Capitals’ leading-scorer Brette Kerley.

“Everyone looks up to us; going into the little schools and seeing how excited the kids were to see us and just showing off Cariboo Hockey in a good way. [...] It’s pretty great considering that this isn’t really our hometown, but it feels like home whenever we stepped onto the ice.”

This isn’t the first time Ernie Sam Memorial Arena has been advocated for an upgrade.

In September 2019, local residents nominated the rink for Kraft’s Project Play, which also grants $250,000 in upgrades, but didn’t win.

For 2021 Kraft Hockeyville, once the nomination is officially submitted, the Northern Capitals hope the region can rally together so upgrades can be made possible in hopes of heading back up Highway 27 north to host a 2022 BC Winter Classic.

The nation-wide challenge has been running for 15 years to ‘provide a platform for people from all walks of life to come together: because communities build hockey, and hockey builds communities.’

Nominations for this year’s contest are to be submitted by 11:59 p.m. on Feb. 14.

The judging round will commence Feb. 19 to March 19 with the top four communities across Canada being selected March 20.

The winner of 2021 Kraft Hockeyville is slated for a date to be determined after April 10.

The last B.C. community to win the title was in Lumby in 2016.