It was a positive night at the Maple Creek Community Rink Saturday evening, as hundreds of people gathered to take in the 36th-annual Battle of Little Big Puck.
The game sees the Cowboys, who are made up by local ranchers (who are, or have been, members of the rodeo association) take on the Indians, who are all members of the Nekaneet First Nation, located just south of Maple Creek, in Cypress Hills.
The two teams face off in a battle for bragging rights, while also raising money for charity. This year the bragging rights went to the Indians, as they won 11-8. The proceeds this year will be split between the Nekaneet youth travelling to the FSIN Winter Games, and the Maple Creek Hospital.
The now annual game began in 1979 when two Cowboys (Tom Reardon and Nick Demchenko) were talking with a member of the Nekaneet First Nation (Raymond Anderson), and friendly banter saw a challenge for a game to be held to settle who was better at hockey - the Cowboys or Indians.
Prior to the opening face-off, for Saturday night's standing-room-only crowd, the community honoured the two surviving of the three original organizers of the game, Reardon and Demchenko, as well as Laryn Oakes, a World Champion Women's Fancy Dancer, with a presentation of custom leather jackets courtesy of SIGA.
Tom Reardon, said when they started back in 1979, he didn't think it would turn into the community get-together it has become.
"We were having a beer, and we planned all this and then held it the next January," he said. "It's not like we are visionaries. All we were doing was planning a fun Sunday afternoon."
After the opening ceremonies, it was time for puck drop, with a local RCMP officer keeping the peace as the referee.
The Cowboys got off to a rough start as they were down 7-3 after the first 20 minutes of play. The Cowboys battled back in the second period, as they scored five goals and limited the Indians to just one, to tie the game at eight goals each going into the third period.
In a much anticipated by the crowd annual tradition, during the second intermission, the players change out of their standard hockey gear and dress up to make it a colourful, visually compelling game of Cowboys versus Indians on the ice.
For the Indians, it was an elaborate mix of feathers, face paint, and beads, while the Cowboys threw on their chaps, cowboy hats, and rodeo gear, and for one player, an inflatable horse. The referee got in on the action as well, as he changed from the traditional black and white jersey, to his red coat and stetson the RCMP are known for.
The Cowboys and Indians made their return to the ice with applause from the crowd, and, also as a part of the annual event, before the final frame could kick off, the Indians held a pow wow.
In the third period, the Indians pulled away again, scoring three to win 11-8 and take home bragging rights for another year.
Joe Braniff, one of the organizers of the game, and a player on the Cowboys team, said that this year's game was one of the most important they've played.
"It was an awesome night, in lieu of everything that was coming down on us leading up to the game, and with the little bit of political pressure, both teams played as well as we can,” he said. “I mean it's not the best hockey in the world, but I think everybody tries as hard as anybody in any league, and it was just a great game and a lot of fun, and I'm hoping the spectators enjoyed it as much as we did."
Braniff noted that to him, it was key that the game set an example of how two cultures can come together.
"During these times of turbulence and trouble in our province, we wanted to be the event, the group, and the two cultures, that show we can do this. We can get along, and we can work together."
Braniff further notes that what makes the game so special, is the mutual respect both teams have for one another.
Dale Mosquito, another of the organizers, and a player on the Indians' team, said that he thought this year's game went very well.
"I would deem it a success," he said. "I think when everybody goes home at the end of the night feeling good, and everybody did a good job, then for the 36th year we've contributed to a good cause."
Mosquito said that the game not only raises money for a good cause, but it's also a way for both the Cowboys and Indians to keep their cultures intact.
"This is something that we've been doing for a long time," he said. "So yes sometimes outside forces will be there, but we are trying to cling on to what we have. The battle is between two cultures, but not against each other. It's about trying to keep our cultures intact."
Braniff added that the game was a success, as they were able to raise money for both their causes as well as show the province, and the country, that two cultures that may not always get along, can get along and work together.
At the time of this story being published, final numbers for the amount raised for this year's two receiving organizations were not in, but look for future stories here with those details.
More photos from the 36th annual Battle of Little Big Puck.