No obstacle too great for Miswaggon Blue-liner overcomes discrimination to anchor defence for top-ranked T-birds
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Kennesha Miswaggon is an Indigenous woman playing hockey.
It’s not something her teammates and coaches blurt out, nor is it a factor in her ability to play the game she loves. Yet, the 21-year-old’s skin colour and culture are things she thinks about often.
“Just because there’s not a lot of Indigenous players, no matter where I’ve played: At the higher levels, (Balmoral Hall School), provincial teams, even at the (Team Canada U18 national team camp), there’s not much Indigenous players,” Miswaggon told the Free Press Tuesday by phone.
“I think about it a lot and I definitely try to do my best to make those people proud, especially at home and just our future players growing up. I try my best to play the game and represent myself and put a good image out there.”
Miswaggon, who is Cree, can still vividly recount the hardships she faced as a young skater. Raised in Cross Lake First Nation, a reserve about eight hours north of Winnipeg, Miswaggon grew up in a hockey household. She watched her older brother, Donovan, play hockey while her dad rooted for the Edmonton Oilers.
She began skating when she was four years old and shortly after she joined the team on her reserve — an all-boys squad that travelled across the province for tournaments.
Things changed for Miswaggon around the time she was 10 years old, when she began to realize her skin colour earned her different treatment from other skaters. The young blue-liner would often hear slurs form parents, players and coaches alike in opposing arenas. By the time she was 14, when she began to blossom as a player, Miswaggon recognized the severity of the issue when she was cut from several teams.
“It was obvious I should have made certain teams, I was good enough to be on those teams. But I just didn’t and I was really sad,” Miswaggon said. “I didn’t really understand growing up but now I do and I see it now.
“Obviously, I feel sad and hurt about it at first — and a little angry — but my dad always told me, ‘There’s so much more than that, you just gotta be the better person and keep pushing on and doing the best that you can.’”
Miswaggon has since turned the corner — and by her own admission, hasn’t experienced many other cases of overt racism — earning Manitoba Aboriginal Sports and Recreation Council women’s athlete of the year in 2018, being invited to Team Canada’s U18 camp and earning rookie of the year honours at the University of British Columbia, where she currently competes for the Thunderbirds.
Miswaggon, in her third year, anchors the Thunderbirds’ blue line as a shutdown defender on the top pairing, playing big minutes on the country’s top-ranked program.
UBC won the Canada West Championship last year in a run that saw Miswaggon and playing partner Rylind MacKinnon fail to concede a goal against the opposition’s top lines throughout the playoffs.
“She can do it all,” said head coach Graham Thomas, in his 11th year heading the program. “She was a big part of that role last year. She’s an underrated player, in my opinion, as far as Canada West recognition and things like that.
“It’s massive, having a (defensive) core and her being a big part of that (defensive) core. As a program, we’re really built from the back-end out and she’s a big part of that. She plays a lot of minutes, she plays a lot of roles, she wear a lot of different hats and she’s extremely valuable.”
Miswaggon is one of three Manitobans on the Thunderbirds’ roster. Karine Sandilands a second-year forward from Winnipeg, who has been her friend since they played together for three years at Balmoral Hall.
Sandilands, 20, said her transition to Vancouver as a freshman was made much easier knowing Miswaggon was waiting for her.
“She’s improved so much from the six years we’ve been playing together,” Sandilands said. “It’s been amazing to see her grow as a person and as a player. Something I’ve always noticed about her in how she plays is she’s always very calm with the calm and she has a lot of poise when she plays. And you can definitley tell she makes an impact out there all the time.
“I’ve always looked up to her. She’s an amazing person and player so I’ve always tried to follow in her footsteps and I always watch her on the ice to see what she’s doing. She’s only a year older so we’re more like really good friends, but I definitley look up to her a lot. She does a lot of amazing things out there.”
Miswaggon is currently earning a degree in kinesiology and plans to return to Cross Lake First Nation as a nurse. She said it’s always been a dream of her’s to return home to serve her community in health care.
“Just family and my home community. They’ve brought me this far,” Miswaggon said.
“They’re the reason why I’m here and I just feel like I owe it to them and I want to give back to the community.”
Joshua Frey-Sam happily welcomes a spirited sports debate any day of the week.
Updated on Tuesday, January 24, 2023 7:39 PM CST: Typo fixed