When Theodore Fontaine glanced inside the old pair of gloves on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame — and saw his name written there — memories came flooding back.
"Oh my goodness, they were my old gloves that I wore in Copenhagen in 1978... The Sagkeeng Oldtimers have been accepted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto," Fontaine said Tuesday by phone, after memorabilia from the team of Indigenous players were unveiled in the Ontario capital.
It was a highly personal moment at a public occasion, and lent insight into how hockey and reconciliation fit together in Canada.
Fontaine is an original member of the Oldtimers, an all-Indigenous team founded in 1978 at Sagkeeng First Nation, about 100 kilometres north of Winnipeg.
Fontaine and fellow Oldtimers originals Fred Kelly and Ron Guimond — and later players such as Ken Young — were among the few still alive able to attend Tuesday’s event, held in the same building that houses the NHL’s Stanley Cup. Later this winter, when the Cup makes an anticipated appearance in Winnipeg, it will be accompanied by some of the Oldtimers.
To have the Hockey Hall of Fame recognize their club, Fontaine said, is significant: hockey was a lifesaver for boys on the teams that existed during the residential school era.
"In my mind, this has been my goal all my life, to have some verification that we are here, in spite of (residential schools and government policy trying) to destroy Indian people," he said. "This is the verification we are not going to disappear. We’re here now. In the Hockey Hall of Fame."
Known for its role in safeguarding the history of the sport, the Hall of Fame is also held in high regard among the families of former Oldtimers players because the "keeper of the Stanley Cup," Phil Pritchard, is known to appreciate the link between hockey and reconciliation.
"To be able to preserve the Sagkeeng Oldtimers artifacts is a great honour for the Hockey Hall of Fame. Any time we can preserve some of Canada’s history within our four walls, it is always special," Pritchard said Tuesday in an email. "To hear the stories... on their travels was an education in itself."
It was Fontaine who first brought the club to the attention of the Toronto institution.
Four years ago, as he wrapped up a speech at a Truth and Reconciliation Commission event to honour the memories of Canada’s residential school survivors, he recalled the role hockey played in his youth.
A bentwood box was commissioned by the commission, and it travelled with it during hearings across Canada. It was used to collect offerings from survivors to commemorate their personal journeys of healing and reconciliation. Among the materials it holds is a commemorative program for the Oldtimers, which profiles all the players on the 1988 team, including longtime NHL defenceman Jim Neilson.
Afterward, a woman approached Fontaine, saying she was interested in the Oldtimers’ story and her daughter worked at the Hockey Hall of Fame. He and other former players followed up on the chance conversation, leading to the donation and display unveiled Tuesday.
"Essentially, it was residential school survivors reliving the one joy they had in residential schools. Out of fun, you know," Fontaine said.
The Sagkeeng Oldtimers didn’t just play hockey. They won.
The club joined the Canadian Oldtimers Hockey Association in 1978, and played in COHA tournaments in Copenhagen, London, Paris, Toronto, Montreal and Munich. It also played in national and regional tournaments across Canada and the United States. The Oldtimers took home two World Cups, both in Munich, in the 1980s, with players ranging in age from 35 to 50-plus.
Credit for putting together the memorabilia — including jerseys, banners, crests, Fontaine’s old gloves and even a cow bell used to summon players to the ice for practice — went to Darlene Ahmo.
Ahmo wept during an interview Tuesday. "These are tears of happiness," she said. "It was just beautiful, awesome, humbling, something I never thought I’d see. My parents worked so hard; they were so deserving of this recognition. They gave so much to Sagkeeng."
Ahmo’s parents, Walter and Verna Fontaine, both residential school survivors, helped establish the Oldtimers and kept the club going for over a decade.
Walter was remembered for talking the Saskatchewan-born Neilson — who played 1,023 NHL regular-season games, mostly with the New York Rangers — into suiting up with the Manitoba club.
He also got his little brother, Phil, another residential school survivor and hockey star in school, to gear up.
Phil Fontaine would go on to serve three terms with the Assembly of First Nations as national chief, and is largely credited with brokering a billion-dollar residential school settlement that resulted in the creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Alexandra believes every story has a life of its own with a heartbeat and body and legs. She’ll probe for a pulse and check out its shape from every which way, until she feels it and sees it. So be patient with her. She can be exasperating.
Updated on Wednesday, January 10, 2018 at 6:34 AM CST: Adds photos