If there’s one thing Ricky Barkman loves, it’s hockey.
It was a passion that drove the teenager from his Sachigo Lake First Nation home to attend high school in Thunder Bay, Ont., nearly 650 kilometers south.
The 14-year-old wanted to play hockey in the league so badly that he was ready to take the big leap. From Sachigo Lake First Nation in northern Ontario, which has about 500 people, to Thunder Bay, a city of 110,000, and Hammarskjold High School, which has about 800 students.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was 12,” Ricky said. “It’s fun to meet new people and play with other teams.”
Since the age of nine, Ricky had skated and played hockey for about five hours a day, whenever it was cold enough that the community rink froze. He played with a handful of friends and occasionally joined teams assembled to compete in tournaments in Northern Ontario.
But when he arrived in Thunder Bay, Ricky entered competitive minor hockey, a world far from what he was used to.
He started by attending U15 division evaluations, where coaches get the chance to see players ahead of a city-wide draft. He was trying alongside players who had probably already been in organized hockey for about 10 years.
But Ricky said he wasn’t intimidated by it, especially knowing he had the support of his family.
“Oh, that feels good,” he said. “I think I’m the first person in my family to have been on a team in any sport.”
But Ricky is certainly not the first in his family to leave home for high school. He has eight older siblings who left to continue their high school education, but they all attended school in Sioux Lookout, a community much closer to his home, about 440 kilometers away.
When parents Tim and Ella started making arrangements for Ricky, there were new things to navigate, especially this year.
LISTEN | Here is CBC’s Superior Morning radio mini-documentary The Barkman Hockey Family
6:55Mary-Jean Cormier: Barkman Hockey Family
“With the pandemic, kids aren’t even allowed or they don’t recommend kids come and go, so all the students are still home. But because Ricky wanted to play hockey, you know, we supported,” Ella Barkman said. .
“We had to sign a waiver for him to come and go to school and play hockey.”
Tim said the decision was difficult, but worth it.
“It’s not easy letting your kid out at 14 and go to high school,” Ricky’s dad said. “But for him, he’s lucky to have his sisters that he lives with.”
Kayla and Samantha Barkman, Ricky’s sisters who live and work in Thunder Bay, care for him while he is in high school, helping him meet the demands of high school and his team.
“It’s good to have him here. He always wants to go to the arena and skate, and outdoor rinks and everything. Sometimes we both like to go to practices,” Kayla said.
Although she didn’t start playing hockey until her brother started playing, Kayla and the rest of her family are Ricky’s biggest fans, wearing matching Barkman hoodies and cheering on every goal. .
But his sisters aren’t the only Barkmans that can be seen in the stands.
Tim and Ella come to watch as often as they can, despite the sacrifices they have to make to make it happen.
Getting from Sachigo Lake to Thunder Bay means either taking an expensive flight, with airfare costing around $700, or going on a long drive, when the ice roads are passable.
“The trip could also take 17 hours, depending on the route. I mean, it could take longer than that sometimes, you know? But we have to, I mean, we have to travel,” Tim said.
When they can’t make it in person to watch their son play, the family gathers in Sachigo Lake to watch the live video stream available at multiple Thunder Bay arenas.
Even at home, Ella clapped like she was there.
WATCH | Ella Barkman encourages Ricky from her Sachigo Lake First Nation home:
This season, Ricky has given his family plenty to cheer about as one of the team’s top scorers, although he shares the credit with his teammates.
“It’s pretty good, but that’s all the work of the team. They just give me good plays and I just put them in the net. That’s how it’s been so far.”
A rising star?
It was this talent that his coaches saw when Ricky first arrived at U15 tryouts, according to KC Sabers head coach Nick Parry.
“From the start, you could tell he had talent. He skated hard. Really good hands. You could tell the kid loved hockey. And that’s where we wanted to draft Ricky.”
Parry said Ricky’s lack of minor hockey experience doesn’t matter, and it’s something he’s seen before with other First Nations players he’s drafted into the northern communities.
“Every one of them I’ve had, they’ve loved hockey a lot. They’ve always been in every practice, every game. They want to be there. They give their all and they want to improve.”
If Ricky wants to stick with it, Parry said, he could definitely play AA hockey, if not junior hockey, later.
The teenager has similar hopes, but also looks to his education to open up other possibilities.
“Maybe I’ll become like an engineer or something.”
Until then, he said, he will enjoy the trip, knowing his family is cheering him on.