Tony Apetagon wouldn’t take off his hockey skates.

Tony Apetagon wouldn’t take off his hockey skates.

It didn’t matter if he was on or off the ice, as a young boy growing up in Norway House, Apetagon was almost always on his blades.

"He was walking around my living room with his skates on, punching holes in the wall with his hockey stick," said his father, Anthony, who gave Apetagon, a four-year-old at the time, his first pair of skates.

"Holes can be fixed and tiles can be replaced, right? But to garner that strength in the ankles and legs was key."

When Apetagon’s skates weren’t slicing up the flooring in his family home, they were on the ice at the Kinosao Sipi Multiplex.

"My dad threw me on the ice with nothing more than a chair and I fell in love instantly," Apetagon, now 23, said.

"I was always bugging him to go to the rink."

Luckily for him, Anthony was the manager of the multiplex at the time. Apetagon took full advantage as he would often hit the ice before and after school.

"When I was growing up, hockey was pretty much everything. I always played mini sticks, hockey video games, watched hockey videos, and watched hockey whenever it was on TV. Hockey was everything and it’s all I wanted to do," said Apetagon.

Tony Apetagon started playing hockey in his home community of Norway House after his father gave him his first pair of skates. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Tony Apetagon started playing hockey in his home community of Norway House after his father gave him his first pair of skates. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

A few skate sizes later, a 16-year-old Apetagon headed to Thompson to play for the Norman Northstars of the Manitoba AAA U18 Hockey League. On a trip to Winnipeg, the team took in a Manitoba Bisons hockey game at the Wayne Fleming Arena.

"I remember saying to myself ‘I really want to play here one day,’" Apetagon said.

After two seasons with the Northstars, the forward took his talents to the Keystone Junior Hockey League’s Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN) Storm. Apetagon lit it up in his lone season of Junior ‘B’, scoring 43 goals and adding 59 helpers in 34 games. His knack for finding the back of the net led to him making the jump to the Manitoba Junior Hockey League the following year with the OCN Blizzard.

New series

Click to Expand

This is the first instalment in a new periodic series, Indigenous Sports Focus.

Free Press sports writer Taylor Allen shares the stories of Indigenous athletes and coaches in Manitoba. Have a certain individual in mind? Email taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca with your suggestion.

"He came in as an 18-year-old but it was like he was 20. He was mature, a really nice kid on and off the ice who really understood the game and had an extremely high hockey IQ," said Jeremy Hohn, the general manager of the Storm.

"There’d be a few games where things weren’t going the way we wanted to, but his work ethic was always there for the full 60 minutes. We’d be down three or four goals with three or four minutes left, but you’d see him out there still backchecking hard and playing the full 200 feet of ice. That was a huge thing that pushed him to the next level in his career."

Apetagon starred for the Blizzard for a year and half before requesting a trade to a playoff team. The rebuilding Blizzard granted their leading scorer’s wish by shipping him, as well as defenceman Darren Gisti, off to the Winnipeg Blues at the league’s trade deadline in 2019. It was Apetagon’s first time living in the big city, but he felt comfortable thanks to Gisti. Apetagon asked Gisti, a Winnipegger, if he could live with him and his family instead of being placed with a billet and the Gistis said yes.

Apetagon had a goal and an assist in his first game with the Blues. He ended up with 25 points in 18 games, but couldn’t get Winnipeg over the hump as they lost in the first round to the Steinbach Pistons. But half a season was all Apetagon needed to make a strong impression.

"(Former Blues head coach) Billy Keane told (Bisons men’s hockey head coach) Mike Sirant all about me. So, after our last playoff game when we got eliminated, I got a text immediately from Mike saying he wanted me to visit the campus for a tour and how he really wanted me on the team," Apetagon said.

"At the time, I had other options. I had an option to play in Toronto for York University, but I’m a homeboy. I just decided to stay home and play for the Bisons… It was a dream come true."

Apetagon has three goals in nine games so far with the Bisons this season. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Apetagon has three goals in nine games so far with the Bisons this season. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Apetagon had to bide his time as a freshman, spending the first few months of the season out of the lineup. But in a home game on Oct. 27, 2019 against the UBC Thunderbirds, Apetagon finally got a chance.

"The night before the game Mike said to me ‘You better be ready tomorrow’ and I whispered to myself ‘I have three months worth of readiness for you.’ It was my birthday, actually, and I scored. My first game and my first goal being on my birthday was pretty special," Apetagon said.

"It was a pretty nice goal, too. It was a backhand, top shelf."

Apetagon, who has three goals in nine games with the Herd this season, tries to make it back up to Norway House four to five times a year. When he does make the eight hour drive to the northern community of approximately 8,000 people, Apetagon always makes sure to get some ice time at the multiplex. He usually ends up having a mini cheering section as little kids at the rink will go watch him skate and ask him for his stick after.

"As a parent, that’s one of the things that makes me so proud. I’m glad he’s a good role model to the other kids," said Anthony, now a member of the leadership group at the Norway House Cree Nation Chief of Council.

"When he comes back, I go to the rink and watch him play with the other young men and women in the community and the kids watching will ask me ‘How did Tony get to be so good?’ and I tell them that it takes a lot of hard work, effort and staying the course."

Apetagon is only in his second year of eligibility with the Bisons, but he’s already planning for life after hockey. He wouldn’t mind trying his hand at the pro game for a season or two, but the kinesiology and recreation management major is determined to return to Norway House to make a difference.

"I want to go back home and help out my community the best that I can, especially with sports," he said.

"I know sports can open a lot of doors and I’m living proof of that. Back home, there’s a lot of drugs, alcohol, and mental illness. I know sports can’t solve it completely, but it can take away a little bit of that hurt and stress. That’s been my plan for a long time, since I was growing up."

taylor.allen@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @TaylorAllen31

Taylor Allen

Taylor Allen
Reporter

Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.