The more First Nations players make the NHL, the more they motivate the next wave to strive for greatness.
Every kid needs a hero and it helps if that hero reminds you of yourself. African-American kids have P.K. Subban to look up to and Muslim kids can look to Nazem Kadri’s success. But who are the NHL role models for First Nations kids living in hockey-mad Canada? Fourth-line grinders like Jordin Tootoo and Cody McCormick?
How about Canadian Olympic goalie Carey Price?
It’s not a well-known fact, but Price, who was born in Anahim Lake, B.C., is the only First Nations player on the Canadian men’s team and one of two playing for the Montreal Canadiens. Price’s Montreal teammate Rene Bourque is an Alberta boy of Metis descent who’s done a lot of charity work for First Nations causes.
“I just don’t think a lot of people know that Carey is First Nations,” Bourque says.
Price, whose mother Lynda is the former chief of the Ulkatcho First Nation, is easily the highest-profile Aboriginal athlete in the NHL. He’s also one of a short list of First Nations athletes competing in the Olympics, and one of an even shorter list playing for hockey gold in Sochi. St. Louis Blues forward T.J. Oshie, who is part Ojibwe, will represent the United States at the Games.
“There have only been a handful of indigenous athletes throughout history who have competed in the Olympic Games, both summer and winter,” says Janice Forsyth, director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University.
Forsyth, who studies Aboriginal people in sport, counts only 16 First Nations athletes who have represented Canada at the Olympics between 1896 and 2012 – a significantly disproportionate number, considering 2.6 percent of Canada’s population is First Nations.
So why aren’t more First Nations kids making the NHL? Forsyth says financial challenges are a big factor, but so is visibility on the world stage.
“It is important to see someone who is Aboriginal who has found success,” Forsyth says. “People can see themselves represented in that way.”
And while seeing role models in the NHL is important, for many First Nations kids, simply being seen is the real struggle. Playing hockey in northern Canada makes it difficult to catch the attention of pro scouts.
“It’s very difficult, especially if you’re coming from a reserve or if you’re coming from a low-income environment, to be able to first of all just get yourself onto a team, to stay on the team, and then to have yourself noticed, because you’re competing against kids who can afford the best training, the best coaching, the best care,” Forsyth says.
Bourque, who hails from the small Alberta town of Lac La Biche, grew up in a community where there were a lot of Metis kids, but not a lot of hockey opportunities. He went undrafted as an 18-year-old and had to go the college route before signing with the Chicago Blackhawks. After three seasons with the Hawks, Bourque was traded to Calgary, where he played for three-and-a-half seasons and set up charities to help First Nations kids in the area.
“You see the effects of stuff that goes on in small towns or even in reserves and it’s a tough life for a lot of those kids,” Bourque says.
His charity, Bourque’s Buddies, used to hand out tickets to local Tsuu T’ina Nation kids who showed dedication to learning. Bourque also donated 50 sets of hockey equipment to low-income kids in Lac La Biche.
“Just stuff to open their eyes a bit, hopefully give them something to look forward to,” he says.
Equipment donations are one of the best ways to directly help First Nations hockey, Forsyth says. Remote northern communities have the perfect climate to play outdoors, but hockey is expensive there because it comes with the added cost of paying to have gear flown in from the city.
“You’re paying astronomical amounts of money just to get equipment, so when people donate equipment like this and when they pay for the costs of doing that, it helps immensely,” Forsyth says.
For his part, Bourque says it would be great to see the number of First Nations players in the NHL go up.
“There’s a lot of good players out there, but a lot of it is just having a good upbringing and guidance,” he says. “There’s a lot of guys that even have a little bit of Indian blood in them, that you don’t hear about. Obviously, you want to see more.”