Deerfoot Sportsplex Superintendent Ira McHugh has been a lifelong basketball player and fan. McHugh has been an integral part of the Blackfoot Invitational since its inception in 1979, selling programs and admission at the door of the old Crowfoot School Gymnasium.
10 years of assisting in tournament duties under co-founder and director Rick Running Rabbit, McHugh and colleagues Faron Mcmaster and Fred Rabbit Carrier took the helm of the Invitational in 1990. This began a 20-year stretch for the three of them running the famed tournament.
“When we took it over in the 90s, we attracted some of the biggest teams in Indian ball country, that’s what I’m proud of,” says McHugh. “The championship game for one invitational final was the same two teams that had played in the NIAA championship in the US just two weeks later.”
The Blackfoot Invitational created folk heroes in its heyday of the 80s & 90s. “Elvis Old Bull—one of the purest 3-point shooters in all of Indian ball, [many] people asked about him,” Ira explains. “Just the name Elvis rang a bell among the local fans. By the time he had made the finals the gym was packed wall to wall.”
The competitive nature and quality of basketball played at the invitational influenced the basketball community in Siksika Nation. Siksika’s talent began to compete with the American power house teams. “The real local legend, Harlan McMaster, came out of university and built up our game at home. He brought us to another level,” Ira explains. “Supported by Rick Running Rabbit and Mario Waterchief, Harlan put together a team of all Indian ballers from Canada.” This group was aptly named Team Canada.
Women’s basketball always had a presence in Siksika as well—a women’s division has been included in every running of the Invitational with local teams entering every year. In 1997, The Siksika Lady Selects won the tournament.
Candace McMaster was the tournament MVP. Ira says this team had developed a rivalry over the years. “There’s a team called the South Dakota Ball Hogs and they used to always beat the Siksika women’s team by 20 points. The win in ‘97 ended that stretch.”
The Blackfoot invitational and its rich history has always been a draw for fans and teams alike, just five years after the inaugural running, the tournament had attracted teams as far away as Nevada, Santa Clara, & Saskatchewan.
It was a blow to many when the tournament ceased operation after the 2013 installment. “I think back to a kid who called when it ended ‘I waited all my life to play in this tournament because my dad played in this tournament and then you canceled it. I’d just like to express my disappointment,’ I felt for him,” Ira says.
In many ways it feels the time is right for the return of the Blackfoot Invitational. Ira has optimism for this new era, “Our Siksika Nation hospitality was the hallmark of the Blackfoot Invitational. It brings a sense of satisfaction; I hope we can bring it back.”