Marking another notch in a forty-year-old tradition, Maple Creek's Battle of Little Puck once again brought together the community through the love of hockey.
Coming in on the heels of Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada being held in Swift Current, the area around the city has proven once more that hockey is a pastime of passion and inclusivity.
Yesterday marked the 37th time that registered members of rodeo associations and those who live or once lived on the Nekaneet First Nation met to take part in a stape of Canadian culture, a game of hockey. The first game took place 40 years ago, but in previous years was missed.
Mandy Braniff was a spectator at the game, and said that rain or shine, in good health and sickness, attending the Battle of Little Big Puck was a must.
"I haven't missed one since I've lived here probably 14, 15 plus years"
The arena was filled with members of the community, some seeing the game for the first time, and others who were there to see the longtime tradition continue on once again.
While the first two periods resembled a friendly game of hockey, during the second intermission a change was made to celebrate the culture of both the cowboys and Nekaneet teams.
Team Nekaneet wore traditional first nations clothing, while registered rodeo members transformed into John Wayne-esk cowboys.
Each of the teams had their own organizer, in the case of Neekaneet First Nation, Dale Mosquito took that role. He is also a band councillor.
He spoke about how the game commemorates and recognizes the relationship between ranchers and First Nations now and in the past.
"So a long time ago both cultures existed and co-existed well. What it was [that made it that way,] was to promote a good livelihood, so not only could the ranchers have good steady labour, but for us, it built good relationships, and to this day in 2019 we still see that quite evident here in the foothills of Cypress Hills."
Mosquito said that while 'battle' may be in the name, the event is a great way to blend and accommodate the two cultures.
"It's not a battle between two cultures, but actually a way to showcase two cultures, being the First Nations culture, but also the cowboy culture, we have to do our best to keep them thriving," said Mosquito, who has been participating in the game for nearly 20 years. "For us, this game means a lot because we get to put it on the ice, but we get to show the outside world how we do it here."
Speaking on this year's outing and its proximity to the four-decade mark, Mosquito said that the game has come a long way since its inception.
"The founders of this game never thought that it would hit the 37th annual, in a couple years time we're going to hit our 40th and that's going to be a milestone for us, so we're going to celebrate it, and celebrate it with the world."
The organizer of the cowboys' team during the battle was Joe Braniff. He said that while relationships on a national level have faced some challenges between indigenous and non-indigenous peoples, but it has not adversely affected the event.
"Every now and then, politics raises its ugly head, but we've been pretty blessed that its been smooth sailing for the most part of the 37 games that have been played."
Noting how the collaboration between the groups had been so lengthy, Braniff said that it was due to the effort from both sides making it happen.
"It's a teamwork success, it takes both teams, it takes both factions of our fanbase, to get behind this event, and they've done it 37 consecutive times, we are so proud of that, and that's what makes, not only this game special, but Maple Creek special."
Braniff said that Maple Creek and area had a special connection between the two groups, citing that as the reason for the success of the tradition.
"What makes it so unique here is the relationship between the Nekaneet people and the ranching community and townsfolk. A lot of the players on the ice tonight, on both sides, they've known each other forever, their parents knew each other, their grandparents knew each other, and some of us, our great-grandparents probably knew some of theirs. So you've got that familiarity, you've got that common bond amongst you... it makes it a lot easier."
Explaining that the success was due to this shared bond, Braniff said that other communities had tried to host similar activities such as these in the past, but failed.
Someone who expanded on that point was Lawrence Robertson, who has been a referee at the event for the past 25 years.
"It doesn't matter if your native or black or white, in this town we pretty much get along pretty decent. There are other towns that I know they couldn't have this game because there would be fights. But here we both do it for a good cause and I think that is the main objective of both the natives and the cowboys, have some fun out there, and raise money for a good cause."
Funds from admission, as well as a 50/50, were being collected to be donated towards the Southwest Healthcare Trust, who would put it to use for re-furnishing Maple Creek's Integrated Health Care Facility. Any funding not used for the furnishing was said to be put towards education bursaries for employees at that facility.
Both Mosquito and Braniff said that they would be looking forward to participating in the big battle in the little prairie next year as they inch closer to aligning history, community, sport, and goodwill for one another for forty years.