“Broomball? What the heck is that?”
It’s a question I’ve heard many times when I tell people I play the winter sport. I explain that it’s a lot like hockey, played on ice, but with rubbery shoes, a rubber ball, and wooden or aluminum sticks with bright red or orange rubber ends, shaped like a broom.
Broomball is a bit obscure, and has a reputation in town of being made up of a rag-tag group, with mixed and matched gear from other sports. While broomball sometimes looks funny, the people who play it are a passionate bunch, and it has some serious history in Yellowknife. Despite the city’s size and remoteness, it churns out some of the best broomball players in the world, and they have the medals – and battle scars – to prove it.
The sport has always been around, much like hockey, but it really got its start in Yellowknife in the ‘70s. Lynn Fowler runs the men’s league and manages the men’s competitive team, the Ravens. In 1969, Fowler was on his way from Manitoba to a mining job in the Yukon. He decided to visit an uncle in Yellowknife, and, much like many who have made this city their home, he never left.
A friend asked him to join the Weaver and Devore broomball team that first winter. He had never played before, but having grown up playing hockey, he figured he’d give it a try. Fowler says the sport was easy to take up.
“There’s not much difference about it from hockey except that you’re on shoes. And your offside normally is your red line instead of your blue line,” he says.
Back in those days, the sport wasn’t organized – people would just pick it up for a game here and there. Fowler says broomball was not for the faint of heart.
“They got pretty rough and they’d even call it ‘broomball wars’ because there were times when there were full-out fights on the ice,” he says. Rivalries formed between the various teams from around the territory. “Hay River never liked us and we never liked Hay River. Basically whenever we met them it was a full-out battle,” he recalls. “In that time in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, with Fort Smith, it was the same thing.”
Pine Point, Inuvik and Fort Providence also had teams.
At one point, perhaps against better judgment, there was a game between the inmates and the guards at the jail. “Yeah, it didn’t go so well,” says Fowler with a laugh.
The so-called ‘broomball wars’ extended to the women’s league as well. Val Pond runs the mixed league and is on the board for the NWT Broomball Association. She’s been playing the sport in Yellowknife since she moved here in 1982, and is one of the best goalies in the mixed league.
She says that back then, if there was a fight on the ice, there was a chance you could find your tires slashed after the game.
“It was very, very aggressive, very hard-hitting,” says Pond. “It was pretty much at times chaotic in the old days. The harder you hit, the more bragging rights you had.” At one point, there was a particularly violent incident in the women’s league that resulted in criminal charges, which Pond refuses to even talk about – not wanting to bring up old pains.
“Everybody was young, wild and foolish and should have known better, but didn’t,” she says.
But change was just around the corner.
From left to right. John Campbell, Steve Vallillee, Sheldon Grayston, Paul Gard and Coach Ray Gagnon.
Caribou Carnival, around 1979
Yellowknife Ravens, Worlds 2008 Challenge Cup Champions, Burnaby, British Columbia
From then on, the sport got a lot less rough. Broomball became a regular feature in the city. Up until a few years ago, there were always fun games on the lake during the now-defunct Caribou Carnival.
“People would be out with real corn brooms and basically a ball that’s kind of like a frozen grapefruit. And you’d be out there for a whole weekend, freezing your butts off,” recalls Tina Locke-Setter, the president of the Yellowknife Ladies’ Broomball Association.
The competitive teams began to travel down south for tournaments. They learned to finesse their game instead of trying to just flatten their opponents (the sport was full-contact up until about five years ago). “Faster provinces like Quebec and Ontario – they’re so good and so fast that they just run around you if you try and hit them,” says Fowler.
Hitting a player meant getting a penalty, so the Yellowknife teams learned to change it up. So much so that the women’s team earned the title of Most Sportsmanlike Team at the 2010 World Broomball Championships in Innsbruck, Austria. It’s that finesse that has carried both the men’s and women’s teams to so many victories over the years.
One theory about why so many good players come out of Yellowknife is that it’s a fairly tight-knit group that has been playing together for a long time.
“Over the years we have been trying to encourage and build the skill level up of the players in the North, and by doing so we’ve had qualified, competent coaching, women that have been interested in going to the next level,” says Pond.
She says every time they win, it’s an added incentive for the players to keep doing well.
“The harder you work, the better you get,” says Pond.
Another theory comes from Locke-Setter, who says the social aspect pulls a lot of people in.
“You’ve got a community of people in Yellowknife and it’s really not that big, but when you get a group of 15 or 20 girls or guys out on the ice three to four times a week playing a game against each other, you really build friendships.”
Locke-Setter says the sport is great because it gets people – herself included – out of the house and doing something active during the long, cold winter nights.
It’s also a lot of fun.
“Broomball’s exciting. It’s not like soccer where, when you’re playing outside, you spend half an hour of your time running the length of the field and you don’t get any goals. It’s fast, it’s exciting, there’s a lot of movement,” she says.
The sport has a strong family connection in Yellowknife. You can’t play a game in the men’s, women’s or mixed league without running into at least a couple Debogorskis.
“One thing about the Debogorskis is they’re very talented players, all of them,” says Fowler. The latest roster on the Yellowknife Broomball site shows seven or eight of them playing for various teams.
Other broomball families include the Fillions, and Fowler’s own family is heavily involved. His brother Pat runs the junior program, his son Shane plays and two of his nephews also play – Sean and Ian Fowler. Ian won recognition as the top goalie in the nationals four times in a row, from 2008 to 2011.
Another recognizable family name is the McLeods; Premier Bob McLeod, his wife and their son all used to play.
Despite the high skill level, strong social aspect and family ties, the sport isn’t as popular as it once was.
“I would say that unless things improve, it’s a dying sport to some extent,” says Fowler.
He says the leagues in town often have problems keeping teams together. Every now and then, one of the three or four teams in any of the leagues will have to forfeit a game because not enough players showed up.
Pond doesn’t think the sport is dying, but she agrees that it needs some new blood.
“Right now you have a lot of men and women that work up at the mine site, so you have the two-in, two-out (schedule). So you miss these players all the time, and Yellowknife still to this day is a very transient place. You’re either here for two, five or life,” she says.
Fowler is already planning the coming season, and Pond welcomes any new players. “If anybody’s interested in giving it a shot, mixed broomball takes to the ice again in October!”
Those who hold the sport near and dear hope the downturn in participation is just a temporary lull. As a player myself, I think it would be sad to see the sport disappear, especially because it’s so much like Yellowknife; somewhat rugged, not always pretty, but has a lot of heart.
Gold at the Western Championships in 2005, 2006 and 2007Gold at the 2008 World ChampionshipsFourth in 2012 at the World ChampionshipsSport North Team of the year awardin 1993 and 2008Goaltender Ian Fowler voted as top goaltender at the National Championships 4 years consecutively: 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011
2011 Sport North Team of the YearBronze at the 2010 World Broomball ChampionshipsMost Sportsmanlike Team at the 2010 World Broomball ChampionshipsSilver at the 2007 Western Canadian Broomball ChampionshipsSilver at the 2006 Western Canadian Broomball ChampionshipsSilver at the 2005 Western Canadian Broomball Championships