This past winter, the World Cup had Luke Kotaska enthralled. He watched as many games as he could, especially the ones played by Team Canada.
However, the former Team NT soccer captain was watching them thousands of kilometres away, in a student common room at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
Kotaska, from Yellowknife, is studying science there and plays on the university soccer team. He has also represented the Northwest Territories in multiple national competitions.
Kotaska said he feels lucky to have played enough soccer, for long enough, to be able to play on a university team. But he said soccer players in the North face unique disadvantages.
“Lots of people don’t have that opportunity, or have to leave Yellowknife and go play in Edmonton or Vancouver if they want to play high-level soccer,” he told Cabin Radio. “I have friends who just left Yellowknife because they couldn’t play soccer here competitively.”
The beautiful game in the North sometimes looks ugly.
Challenges for players include a lack of places to play and a lack of resources to train competitively, particularly if you don’t live in Yellowknife.
But soccer also has a lot to offer the North. Sport and recreation have been identified as helpful interventions in the territorial alcohol strategy and in recent recommendations on suicide prevention. With Canada hosting the men’s World Cup alongside the United States and Mexico in 2026, the game’s devotees across the North are hoping the benefits will be seen here, too.
In March, Niki Ashton – the NDP MP for Churchill-Keewatinook Aski in northern Manitoba – held an Ottawa press conference at which she petitioned world governing body Fifa and the federal government to support soccer in the North as part of hosting one of sport’s biggest events.
Pascale St-Onge, the federal minister of sport, later said access to sport is a priority for the Liberal government. She promised continued support for Canadians to be able to participate in organized sports, including access to high-quality infrastructure.
In an interview with Cabin Radio, Ashton said her campaign is in its early stages. She’s looking for investment for infrastructure and programming for soccer in northern and Indigenous communities.
This could be improving existing fields, she said, or building artificial turf fields better-suited for northern climates. Permanent year-round infrastructure that works in the North could mean the likes of soccer domes.
Ashton said she will soon meet with St-Onge and hopes to discuss proposed federal investments in soccer that dovetail with hosting the World Cup. She said previous international sporting events, including those held in Canada, have a history of investment in youth and amateur sport.
“Why couldn’t the next Alphonso Davies come from northern Manitoba or the Northwest Territories?” she asked, referring to the 22-year-old superstar who scored the first goal for a Canadian men’s World Cup team in Qatar six months ago.
Patch of grass ‘was all I had’
The next Alphonso is going to need a field first.
Kotaska estimates there’s one field in Yellowknife large enough for teams to practise 11-versus-11 soccer.
Yellowknife’s facilities aren’t the right quality to properly support the game, he said, adding that artificial turf would be better than grass, which requires players to wait until grass has started to grow each northern summer – a longer wait than in the south.
Kotaska acknowledged while soccer has been difficult in Yellowknife, other NWT communities have even fewer resources and less funding.
“All the troubles that I face on this are just tenfold if you go into smaller and smaller communities.”
It is a battle for NWT Soccer, said the association’s president, Alex Godfrey. NWT Soccer is the territorial sport organization for soccer, meaning it has responsibility for growing and administering the game across the territory.
Godfrey said the association tries to ensure players in smaller communities get the same opportunities to play. But travel is costly and players usually end up fundraising to do so.
“They’re fundraising for months in order to come out here,” said Godfrey, speaking in Yellowknife. “I wish I could turn around and say, ‘Here’s a whole bunch of money for you to come in and participate.’”
Shamar Bennett had to fundraise to afford flights between Norman Wells and Yellowknife-based training camps ahead of the 2022 Canada Summer Games.
Bennett played with Kotaska at the Canada Games and is now studying commerce at Dalhousie University, also in Halifax.
Playing soccer in Norman Wells, which has a population of 700, was really challenging for Bennett, who described training on a small, hilly, hole-filled patch of grass.
“It was all I had to use,” he said. “It’s not like the players aren’t good. We have good quality players.”
Bennett isn’t the only player from a smaller community to recently make the NWT team.
Kolbi Bernhardt, from Tuktoyaktuk, represented the territory at the 2014 North American Indigenous Games, 2016 Arctic Winter Games and 2017 Canada Summer Games in Winnipeg.
Bernhardt says it’s disappointing that more players from smaller communities don’t make Team NT.
“There’s so much potential out there for other children in the North that can make it,” she said.
She also pointed out that since food prices are so expensive in the North, many can’t afford to eat the healthy diet that athletes require.
“Diet does have a big impact on how you play,” she said, “and that’s very important, also, when you are an athlete in the North.”
She believes coaches should be flown to smaller communities in the North. “It would be great to see a coach in each community,” she said, “going every couple of months for try-outs and training.”
‘We need the facilities’
Some communities are trying to address problems like inadequate infrastructure.
Last year, for example, Fort Simpson announced plans to build a $6-million outdoor sports facility that would include a soccer field.
The village’s senior administrator, Kevin Corrigan, said this week that an application for funding is still awaiting a response from the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency.
But many existing facilities are poorly maintained because of a lack of money, said Kotaska, arguing that if the territory invested more in soccer infrastructure and programming, the sport could grow.
He said the issue is not that people don’t want to play. “We need the facilities, and then more soccer players will come.”
Godfrey, the president of NWT Soccer, doesn’t expect to see increased funding as a direct result of the World Cup. “I don’t foresee a situation where suddenly Canada Soccer is going to be showering us with money. That’s just not going to happen,” he said.
He said the sport’s funding in the NWT comes from the territorial government and sometimes national sports bodies like Canada Soccer. Under the current funding model, the organization receives $100,000 a year from a territorial physical activity, sport and recreation fund.
“It would be really nice if someone in the government, in Ottawa, suddenly deposited a whole bunch of money in our account,” said Godfrey. “Yes, that would be great. And yes, we would utilize it and yes, whatever they can do to support the game of soccer, that’d be great.”
However, Godfrey said he has so far heard nothing from the federal government regarding the World Cup and plans for northern communities.
If World Cup organizers and the federal government were to do something, they should communicate with each other and work together, he said. From there, his priority would be to help increase participation in the game through the grassroots games played in the NWT and across Canada every day.
He isn’t sure how that can best be accomplished.
“Is it more work with the local soccer clubs/coaches/communities/schools? I don’t have an answer for that,” he wrote in an email to Cabin Radio.
Cabin Radio asked both Fifa and Canada Soccer for comment but did not receive a response.
Regardless, both Godfrey and Kotaska hope hosting the World Cup will grow the Canadian soccer community.
“Soccer becoming a bigger part of our culture will increase demand for better facilities,” said Kotaska. “And so an increased budget would mean better maintenance of fields and just more money put into the soccer programs up here.”
“The more we can do to encourage northern and Indigenous communities to participate in the game of soccer, the better it is, because it’s a global game,” said Godfrey, noting that it is widely seen as the one sport in the world that can be played anywhere.
Kotaska said he is excited for the World Cup to arrive in 2026 – games in Canada will be staged in Toronto and Vancouver – and proud the country is helping to host.
Both Bernhardt and Bennett hope they’ll have a chance to watch the games live.
“I’m so excited,” said Bennett. “I can’t wait until 2026.”