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Hockey Nation within a nation

Canada's game may once have been a tool of colonization, but a string of aboriginals stars has body-checked that notion

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There is deer meat cooking on the stove and fresh flatbread on the table in the home of Farron Cochrane, unquestionably one of the elders of aboriginal hockey in Manitoba.

Farron Cochrane plays some shinny with his wife Pearl and son Christian in Peguis First Nation: 'For us out here, that's what we do. We love hockey.'

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Farron Cochrane plays some shinny with his wife Pearl and son Christian in Peguis First Nation: 'For us out here, that's what we do. We love hockey.' (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

Cochrane is sitting at the kitchen table of his home on Peguis First Nation with his childhood-sweetheart-turned-wife-turned-hockey-mom Pearl. Between them they have raised six boys and three girls.

The daughters never took up the game. Had they played, they would surely have been defencemen -- just like dad and all six of his sons.

What would life be like without the game?

"Oh, man, if there wasn't any hockey... " Farron starts.

"...the kids would be lost," Pearl finishes.

Even on a winter's day when the wind lashes snow across the prairies, bringing tears to the eyes, the Farron home is warm and cozy. There are dozens of family photos on the walls, on which Pearl has hand painted words like "Believe" and "Faith" and "Family." Another will soon have its place: a portrait of Cochrane playing recreational hockey with all six of his boys.

That will happen when Ralph, 20, returns for Christmas from The Pas, where he suits up for the OCN Blizzard of the Manitoba Junior Hockey League.

"That was my dream, to see all my boys (in one photo)," Pearl noted. "It's only rec hockey but they get to dangle with their dad."

Hockey is the beacon for the Cochrane family. Farron has coached each of his boys through minor hockey in Peguis, located about 146 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Two of his sons, Dallas, 18, and Christian, 15, are members of the Peguis Junior B team in the Keystone Junior Hockey League. Another boy, 14-year-old Melford, is on the Interlake Lightning Triple A bantam club.

"For us out here, that's what we do," Cochrane said. "We love hockey. We have rinks in our backyards. It's all part of the family tradition, I guess. It's a very important thing in all of our communities."

Indeed, the love affair between Canada's indigenous people and hockey -- a game that some historical scholars would view as a form of assimilation, introduced to many aboriginals in residential schools -- is stronger than ever, especially in Manitoba.

Here's a question: Why would a foreign game introduced by colonizers as a means of instilling their rules and value systems -- through residential schools specifically designed as a means of cultural genocide, no less -- put down such strong roots in the aboriginal community?

The answer, according to Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and former owner of the MJHL's now-defunct Southeast Blades, is like a stick without a curve: straightforward.

"I think it's nothing more complicated than it's our game," Fontaine said from his home in Ottawa. "Sports is a great equalizer. In our country, it's especially true with hockey. Kids have a chance to excel, no matter their background."

True. But sports can also be a divider.

That's the intriguing nature of aboriginal hockey. It can be a form of assimilation. It can be a force for change, and a source of pride. It can also be the soul-crushing experience that awaited a 16-year-old Ted Nolan, fresh off the Garden River First Nation in Ontario, when he arrived in Kenora to play for the MJHL's Kenora Thistles in the mid-1970s -- only to cry himself to sleep after a game in St. Boniface. Or Dauphin.

"Sport is a neutral thing," said Michael Robidoux, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa and author of Stickhandling Through the Margins (First Nations Hockey in Canada). "People around it make it positive or negative. It's emotional. It's something we go to war over."

Farron Cochrane has seen the emotional casualties of that cultural war. And he has seen the positive things hockey has brought.

"It brings out the best in our boys," he said. "We want to show people what we can do."

Game on...

 

The love affair between Canada's indigenous people and hockey is stronger than ever, especially in Manitoba.

 

Ted Nolan has a dream -- one first glimpsed by a community elder more than 20 years ago.

"We are very spiritual people," said Nolan, the former NHL player and head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. "This elder came up to me and said, 'I see you standing behind a bench with our kids representing us at a hockey tournament.' I'll never forget that."

At the time, Nolan was the head coach of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League after retiring from a professional career that included exactly 78 NHL games played. (Ironically, Nolan was taken 78th overall in the 1978 NHL draft.)

Today, Nolan is head coach of the Latvian national team, but he hasn't given up on his dream of seeing a national aboriginal team compete on an international level -- even at the Olympics. In fact, that notion has only been emboldened by his time in Latvia.

It was Phil Fontaine, born and raised in Fort Alexander (now Sagkeeng First Nation), who as national chief of the AFN recruited Nolan to form "Team Indigenous," a group of mostly teenage aboriginal hockey players -- including NHLers Jonathan Cheechoo and Cody McCormack -- to compete in a tournament in Finland in 2000.

"We still talk about that (concept of a national team)," Nolan said. "Because we are a nation. If we had our own team someday it would be incredible. Sports is such a powerful force. It unites people in a common cause.

"When I go over there and see the sense of pride of Latvians playing for their country... whether they win a medal or not it's just seeing that pride they have in representing their people. There's no better feeling than that. If we could grab a bunch of First Nations people and have them represent the nation... wouldn't that be a sense of pride? It has nothing to do with separation. It has something to do with empowering ourselves and feeling better about ourselves. It would make the world a better place."

Maybe a First Nations team would only be fitting, given the theories about the origins of the game itself. Hockey may have been an icy evolution of lacrosse. Wooden sticks similar to hockey sticks were first crafted by the Mi'kmaq First Nations of Nova Scotia in the late 19th Century.

Yet an aboriginal team would also be an ironic twist of the nation's history, given hockey's use as a tool of colonization.

A similar use of sports was seen in the introduction of cricket to the West Indies by the British.

Sports was a "powerful tool for assimilation," says Robidoux. In order to participate, indigenous people had to follow the rules, codes of conduct and values systems of the colonizer.

But "Canada is pretty unique," argues the author. The origins of modern-day hockey were heavily influenced by natives, whose version of lacrosse would make the slice-your-throat Canada-Russia Summit series of 1972 look like a kiddie's tea party.

"It was played viciously right from the earliest games," Robidoux said during an interview from his home in Ottawa. "You had to be tough." The Jesuit priests "thought it was like warfare."

Robidoux said aboriginals began playing hockey for the same reasons as any other community in Canada: entertainment, social gathering and expression of local culture. "It's not about how people approach sports, but life in general," he said.

However, employing sports as a means of "imperialist conquest... whereby the playing field becomes a source of instruction for the newly colonized to assume qualities and customs of the empire" is a double-edged sword.

"There lies a danger in tacitly accepting the outcome of the assimilatory intentions without actually studying the result of the colonized taking up the sport of the colonizer," Robidoux writes.

The OCN Blizzard celebrate their 2-1 shootout win against the Portage Terriers at the MJHL Showcase Tournament in October.

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The OCN Blizzard celebrate their 2-1 shootout win against the Portage Terriers at the MJHL Showcase Tournament in October. (RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS) Photo Store

For example, what happens when the colonized start to defeat the colonizers at their own games? Think of Jackie Robinson breaking the colour barrier in baseball. Or Joe Louis becoming the heavyweight champion of the world.

On Feb. 27, 1934, Fred Sasakamoose, the first aboriginal player in the NHL, made his debut with -- of all teams -- the Chicago Blackhawks, whose logo of a native warrior has been seen as an example of racial insensitivity among the aboriginal community for decades.

Sasakamoose was born on Ahtahkakoop First Nation in Saskatchewan, but learned the game at a residential school in Duck Lake.

George Armstrong, whose mother was Ojibway, played 21 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, 11 years as team captain. Reggie 'The Riverton Rifle' Leach led the Philadelphia Flyers to the 1975 Stanley Cup. Stan Jonathan, a fixture of the powerful Boston Bruins teams of the mid-1970s, was raised on the Grand River First Nations near Brantford, Ont., birthplace of Wayne Gretzky.

To this day, players with aboriginal roots -- from Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (mother, Lynda, is a former chief of Ulkatcho First Nations in B.C.), to Sheldon Souray (raised in a Métis community in Alberta), to Portage la Prairie's Arron Asham (Métis) to Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier (Métis), a star of the New York Islanders dynasty that captured four consecutive Stanley Cups (1980-1983) -- are role models far beyond their statistics.

Without question, the game of hockey still provides an enormous, if not entirely visible, sense of pride in Canada's aboriginal communities.

Just last summer, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup for the first time in the franchise's 25-year existence. But that wasn't the historic part -- at least for hockey fans like Winnipeg's Ryan Cook. While countless others might have been rooting for the Kings because of stars such as Dustin Brown and goaltender Jonathan Quick (both Americans) or locals Dustin Penner (Winkler) and Mike Richards (Kenora), Cook was pulling for lesser-knowns such as Jordan Nolan (Ted's son, an Ojibwa) and Derek King (a Metis from Meadow Lake, Sask.)

"I don't think there was an aboriginal person in all of Canada who wasn't cheering for Los Angeles," said Cook, 32. "When you went on Facebook or Twitter, that's all you saw. Aboriginal people across the country recognized that."

When Nolan and King were being interviewed by Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean following the Kings victory over the New Jersey Devils, Cook took a picture of the image on his TV screen and posted it on his Facebook page. Within minutes, a half-dozen friends had posted the same picture.

"It was a big deal," said Cook, a former member of the Peguis Jr. B team and now head coach of the Team Manitoba men's entry into the Aboriginal National Hockey Championships this spring in Kahnawake, Que.

Jordan Nolan and Derek King raising the Stanley Cup over their heads was a symbol. Another step forward. Those footprints -- or more accurately blade marks in the ice -- continue to be made. This fall, Brigette Lacquette, a 19-year-old from Waterhen, Man., became the first aboriginal player to make the 40-player roster of Team Canada's women's team.

Brigette Lacquette is the first aboriginal player to make the 40-player roster of Team Canada's women's team. 'To be a role model for First Nation youth across Canada is always a plus.'

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Brigette Lacquette is the first aboriginal player to make the 40-player roster of Team Canada's women's team. 'To be a role model for First Nation youth across Canada is always a plus.'

Lacquette, who was MVP in Canada's Under-18 victory at the IIHF World Championships in 2010, now plays defence with the NCAA's University of Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. Her goal is to make Team Canada for the 2014 Winter Games.

"It would obviously mean a lot to make the team and have the opportunity to represent my country," Lacquette noted. "To be a role model for First Nation youth across Canada is always a plus. I'm blessed to even have this opportunity to become a role model for many young aboriginal hockey players."

Lacquette was communicating by email. Her father, Terrence, put the kibosh on his daughter using her cellphone for international calls after a recent phone bill broke the $600 barrier.

It's other more impressionable barriers that Terrence wants Brigette to focus on after stubbornly overcoming so many obstacles to become a Bulldog. The largest hurdle -- a shared experience by many aboriginal players -- would be surviving the mostly verbal abuse they get in their formative playing years.

For Brigette, it would be hearing slurs such as "savage" and "bush-nigger" during tryouts for provincial teams. When she would cry after practices, her father would take Brigette aside and insist, "You can't let them win. You need to press through that and use your talent to get where you need to go."

Added Terrence: "The problem with our native kids is they give up too easy. If someone says something bad to them, they'll leave. They don't have the mental toughness to overcome that. Once you cross that barrier, you're accepted as one of their own. There's still a few players who are going to call you this and that, but at the end of the day, those players get weeded out of the top-end programs."

The father fully understands if his daughter makes Team Canada, there will not be just one nation paying attention.

"It would open the door for future native stars," Terrance said. "If Brigette can get there from Waterhen, Manitoba -- from a little community -- I can get there. Anything's possible. She's leading the way for native girls to get to that level. She's paved a road for other girls to follow."

-- -- --

Within Canada's hockey culture there's an aboriginal subculture that thrives in communities from The Pas to Peguis.

Case in point: A few years ago when Jordin Tootoo, a former member of the OCN Blizzard and the first Inuit player to break into the NHL ranks, came to town with the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals, there was a migration of aboriginal hockey fans to Winnipeg's MTS Centre. They came in droves from across Manitoba, many donning OCN Blizzard or Nashville Predators (the team that drafted Tootoo) jerseys with "Tootoo" on the back.

"I knew it was going to be like that," Cook recalled, laughing. "That's why I was there, too."

Cook attended that Milwaukee/Moose game, just as years before he had gone to see a 14-year-old Tootoo suit up for the Blizzard in the 1997 MJHL finals against the St. James Canadiens.

During that series, the Max Bell Centre, where the Canadiens hosted their home games in the final, was packed to the gills. The sound of ceremonial drums echoed throughout the arena.

In other words, the Blizzard, founded by northern Manitoba's Opaskwayak Cree Nation in 1996, was fulfilling its mission statement from the opening faceoff. The team, after all, was established not just for local entertainment but to provide a hockey haven for native prospects.

"That," noted one of the Blizzard's founding members, Nathan MacGillvray, "was the whole intent."

The aboriginal community across Manitoba immediately adopted the Blizzard as its own. Games in Winnipeg that usually drew relatively small crowds all of a sudden were standing room only.

"We started filling their rinks," MacGillvray said. "We've got a big aboriginal community in Winnipeg, you know. We were a real drawing card."

As the Blizzard stocked its lineup not just with local native players but top junior prospects from across North America, OCN quickly became the MJHL's flagship franchise. Over time, it improved the entire league's quality of play.

"The other teams had to keep pace with them (the Blizzard)," said current MJHL commissioner Kim Davis. "They really raised the bar."

MacGillvray said recruiting players from Montreal or Maine also served to blur racial barriers.

"It really opens (other players' and fans') eyes," he noted. "They get to know us and get to appreciate who we are. Not reading in a history book that we are savages.

"We've been damaged," MacGillvray added. "There's no question about that. We're trying to move ahead. That's the whole reason for this hockey team."

Now in its 16th year -- which included a record-tying run of five consecutive championships (1998-2003) -- the Blizzard's objectives haven't changed. There are currently 15 band members on the club, mostly from OCN. And they still draw a crowd. During the MJHL showcase tournament earlier this year, the stands at the MTS IcePlex in Winnipeg were filled as OCN squeaked out a 2-1 shootout victory over the Portage Terriers.

"It's good for the kids to see," said Blizzard GM Derek Fontaine. "When they start to doubt themselves when they're young, going through whatever obstacles, it gives them -- I don't want to say hope. But to go to that level in junior hockey... they can identify with kids who come from the same backyard. It's a bigger thing for them to see our own being successful. It doesn't matter where we go; Selkirk, Winnipeg, Neepawa. I've seen people from all over. We have a following."

Blizzard captain, T.J. Constant, understands the significance of leading a team from his own First Nation community.

"It feels good," said Constant, who one day hopes to play professional hockey in North America or Europe. "The last (aboriginal) captain was my older cousin, Ryan Constant. I asked him, 'What should I do?' He said, 'Be the best you can be, game in and game out. Be a solid teammate.'"

Ryan Constant was a 17-year-old rookie with the Blizzard when an unprecedented event unfolded far away from the attention of most big-city hockey fans: two aboriginal teams vied for the MJHL championship.

In the spring of 2003, the Turnbull Cup final was being decided between the Blizzard and Southeast Blades, then owned by Phil Fontaine and operated out of Sagkeeng First Nation.

Now 68, Fontaine operates a mediation consulting firm near Ottawa. He still has a rookie card of Fred Sasakamoose on his night stand, along with a picture of his grandson. "I have pictures all over the place about hockey," Fontaine said. "I have an encyclopedia about hockey. I was never a great player. It was more the love of the game."

That same love lured him to buy the money-losing Blades a dozen years ago. "I didn't think long and hard about it," the former Sagkeeng chief recalled. "Maybe if I did, I wouldn't have (gotten involved). The decision was based on community pride more than anything else. It was a big thing in the community, especially an aboriginal community."

However, one moment Fontaine believes is priceless was the 2003 championship, when for the first time two First Nations owned and managed teams -- each stocked with a significant number of aboriginal players -- vied for the title.

"That was pretty special," Fontaine said. "It was a big thing. It was an incredibly proud moment for us."

You see, not only is there a subculture of aboriginal hockey in Canada in general and Manitoba specifically, it's a tightly woven community. Those of a certain age remember the Blizzard-Blades final. They know about the Métis roots of players such as Rene Bourque (Montreal Canadiens) or Vernon Fiddler (Nashville Predators). They know that Brandon's Michael Ferland, 20, a former member of the Brandon Wheat Kings and also Metis, will attempt to crack the Calgary Flames lineup if the NHL lockout ever ends. They know that Rene Hunter, 19, an Ojibwa from Ebb and Flow, will attempt to follow in Ferland's wake with the Wheat Kings this season.

In fact, aboriginal hockey is a lot like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which offers the premise that any two people on Earth are, on average, six acquaintance links apart. Example: Ryan Cook is a former player on Farron Cochrane's Peguis team. Cochrane's son, Ralph, plays for the OCN Blizzard, where the GM is Derek Fontaine, who is a nephew of Phil Fontaine, who once recruited Ted Nolan to coach Team Indigenous. And so on.

"Actually, it's more like two degrees of separation," Cook said. "You name an aboriginal hockey player 20 years from me and I'll know them, or I'll know their parents. The biggest reason for that is the tournaments we have. That's how we all know each other. Hockey is like a gathering. A lot of people are friends and family. It's a great community, too."

There are native minor hockey tournaments. There are aboriginal teams such as the Mallard Stars, a collection of the best aboriginal players born in 1996, which Terrence Lacquette has coached for the last six seasons. There are provincial teams, like the one that Cook will take to the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships. (Chantal Larocque, a former University of Manitoba Bison, will coach the women's team.)

It's a community that has come a long way since the mid-1970s, when a rookie with the Kenora Thistles left his insulated community for the first time.

"I went there like a kid on Christmas Eve, all excited to go," Nolan recalled. "Like opening presents on Christmas morning. All of a sudden the reality jumped in and you're speared or cross-checked or name-called. It was a fight just to survive.

"To this day, I don't know how I stayed the whole year. A lot of nights I cried myself to sleep."

Two weeks into the Thistles training camp, another aboriginal prospect Nolan had befriended decided he'd had enough. His parting words to Nolan: "Good luck."

"People often ask me why native kids are so tough," Nolan reasoned. "We had to be tough. If you're one of only two (aboriginal) kids on either side and you get name-called, you have to stand up for yourself. I never fought until I got to Kenora."

Nolan said his sons Jordan and Brandon, the latter a former member of the Manitoba Moose (2004-2006), didn't experience nearly the same obstacles and abuse. But he added, "The sad part about it, I talk to some players and parents going through it on a daily basis. It's a bit different because you don't know what it's like. When you're growing up with a group of guys your whole life, you go to school together, you hang together, it's part of your life. But when you're not part of that group or trying to fit into that group, it's really hard.

"We're getting to a generation now where we should all respect one another and appreciate the differences rather than making it something negative. We have a very rich culture. We have feelings and come from families with mothers and brothers and sisters and aunts and everything else. But because you look different, people assume you're different."

Nolan's personal journey only enforces his belief that more aboriginal players could be playing in the NHL.

"I think there should be," he said. "But unfortunately some of the hurdles that we face... for every person like me who made it through, there's a thousand who don't. It's tough. All of a sudden you get tired of it, say 'screw it' and go back home. Five years later they say, 'If only I would have stayed.' We've got to stop that 'what if' stuff. We have to create an environment where kids feel safe and secure."

Cook, who is currently finishing his teaching degree at the University of Manitoba, added: "If there's a reason there aren't more aboriginal players in the NHL, it's not because coaches are racist or anything. It's the same barriers that face aboriginals in general. It's the same reason there aren't more doctors or lawyers or CEOs.

"I think there are a lot of kids who are 16 or 17 and they have the tools. They just need the right guidance and coaching to be good NHL players."

-- -- --

Aboriginal players, when they bond together to form teams, are different.

They have their own style.

"The biggest difference I've seen in all my years watching the game, native hockey is a lot more talented, unstructured game," said Terrence Lacquette. "Native hockey, the things that they do with the puck are a lot the same as Russians do. It almost comes naturally to them. It's just like walking. It's normal to them."

The theory is that many aboriginal players, in past years, often learned hockey in isolated environments, honing their puck-handling skills in endless pick-up games. Even Brigette Lacquette credits playing on a backyard rink with her older sister (Tara) and younger brother (Taran) for her skills.

"Growing up in a small Métis community had helped me develop my skills such as stick handling and shooting. I shot on the outdoor rink my dad had built during the winter time, and stayed out there hours at a time."

Cook, meanwhile, contends that all-aboriginal teams have a unique mindset. "You would have to experience it to really understand the difference," he said. "It's not something you can put into words. It's not a racial thing. It's an atmosphere and an attitude."

That atmosphere stems from an understanding, a trust, shared cultural values and experiences, Cook said. He's a big advocate of Nolan's Team Indigenous concept.

"That would be an amazing opportunity to showcase our talent across the world," he said. "It would inspire so many kids. It's like having Jordin Tootoo play in the (NHL) or Jordan Nolan lifting the Stanley Cup. It's something to be proud of, something you can relate to."

Asked how a Team Indigenous might compare to Team Canada, Nolan replied: "It's just a pride thing. What's the difference between being a Canadian or an American? We have powwows in the summertime and it's nice to get together and share our culture and our ceremonies where we were once told we couldn't do them anymore. That's what separates it, a sense of who you are as part of a nation or a country. I'm proud to be from Canada, certainly, but I'm proud to be First Nations."

One can imagine, if Nolan's vision ever becomes reality, Farron Cochrane gathering around the TV with his sons. Nolan is likely behind the bench. Phil Fontaine is watching from Ottawa, with that rookie card of Fred Sasakamoose close at hand. Carey Price is in goal.

"I think we'd have a lot of talent," said Terrence Lacquette. "We'd be fast and we'd be nasty. And you'd find yourself the most entertainment possible."

A hockey nation within a nation. While discussing the possibility with Nolan, a reporter recalled the aboriginal fans flocking to the MTS Centre to see Jordin Tootoo's Milwaukee Admirals, many wearing jerseys with his name on the back.

'Wouldn't revenue from Team Indigenous jersey sales boggle the mind?" Nolan was asked.

He sniffed and replied, somewhat ruefully: "I still think the (Chicago) Blackhawks should give us a percentage. They're already wearing our logo on their sweater."

randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca randy.turner@freepress.mb.ca

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 15, 2012 J1

History

Updated on Saturday, December 15, 2012 at 9:50 AM CST: adds video

10:12 AM: adds slideshow, replaces photos

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