On Saturday, February 16, a mighty battle will take place. It will be a on-ice tussle for bragging rights between cowboys and Indians. Yes, it’s that time of year again: the Battle of the Little Big Puck is set to take place at Maple Creek Community Arena, starting at 7pm. One of the organizers, Joe Braniff, talks about the personal significance of the event.
BY MARCUS DAY
It is a day like no other to Joe Braniff.
He may be a little stiffer now than in his hockey-playing prime. He may – as he says with a laugh – find it harder and harder to tie on his skates.
But on Saturday evening he will take to the ice at the Maple Creek Community Arena with the zest of a cowboy in the saddle for the first time – and in the third period he will probably resemble a broncobuster from a Western, complete with hat and chaps.
To say Braniff is looking forward to the Battle of the Little Big Puck is an understatement.
“It’s one of the gala events of the year,” he says. “I urge people to come to the game. There is always a full house and we get quite a few visitors from out of town. We want everybody to have a fun night.”
Fun may be a prime objective, but for Braniff the significance of the event goes much deeper than that.
It is about creating a bridge between two cultures: cowboys and Indians, to use a phase that sounds politically incorrect, but is perfectly acceptable in Maple Creek.
“People here are very comfortable saying that,” says Braniff.
The relationship between the Nekaneet band, independent people who wished to remain in the hill areas, and ranchers dates back to the 19th century; it is founded on mutual respect and a shared sense of community.
“This game means such a lot to me,” says Braniff, who won the Canadian Professional Rodeo Associations’ Announcer of the Year award from 2001 through 2007. “It is a privilege to take part in something that has created a lot of goodwill over the years. There is a long, long relationship between the Nekaneet band and members of the community. I would say that in Maple Creek this celebration of Indian and cowboy culture makes us unique.”
Last year the game was played against a background of provincial political turmoil over race relations. Yet there was no evidence of animosity on the ice.
“It was played in a good spirit,” says Braniff.
So who is eligible to play and who picks the teams?
“As long as you come from the surrounding area and meet the qualifications – you are a member of a rodeo association or the Nekaneet band – you can play,” says Braniff, a former hockey coach. “All you do is show up on the day with your equipment and you will get a game. You don’t get turned away.”
It is 40 years since the game was born from friendly banter between two cowboys and two Nekaneet in a bar. Except for two or three years, it has been played annually. Saturday will see the 37th match-up.
For Braniff, the anniversary won’t add any spice to the game.
“It is always a special occasion,” he says. “That’s not going to change. You can expect a lot of pomp and ceremony at the beginning when the players are introduced.”
Flags will also be flown, and the national anthem sung in English and Cree.
Braniff said the the “battle’ will feature three hockey periods, the first two played in normal gear. The third period begins with the pounding of the ceremonial drum at the centre ice; both sides will then emerge in traditional garb, from hats and leather leggings to feathers, face paint and beads.
Even the referee, a local RCMP officer, usually gets in the action, donning a Stetson and swapping his black and white jersey for red serge.
As for the hockey it will be keenly contested, even if skill levels are as varied as players’ ages.
“You’ve got some really good hockey players, some mediocre ones, some has-beens and a few who have only played once or twice,” says Braniff.
“The hockey is really about bragging rights. I get asked a lot about whether there have been fights. I can say there has never been a fight. Tempers flare, but that’s only because of the hockey, not because it’s cowboys against Indians. There is always a lot of sportsmanship and camaraderie.”
Who is leading the series?
“I think it’s pretty close, but nobody knows for sure,” says Braniff. “The Nekaneet might be ahead by a couple of games, or maybe the cowboys are a couple of games ahead. It’s very close. I suppose it would be nice to know for sure for historical reasons, but there isn’t a record of it.”
One thing is certain: the Indians won 11-8 last year.
Perhaps the biggest winners over the years have been recipients of funds raised by the event. This year proceeds will go towards the Southwest Integrated Healthy Facility in Maple Creek.
“It’s important that all the funds stay in Maple Creek,” says Braniff.
*Admission to the Battle of the Little Big Puck is $7 for adults, $5 for those 12 and under. The Beer Garden will be run by Senior Hawks. Sponsors are: Hill Country Clothing & Wrangler Canada, Living Sky Casino. There will be prizes for players in three categories: best dressed, most sportsmanlike, and most valuable.