Opportunity Lost

On the barriers faced by aboriginal athletes in professional hockey.
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Theo Fleury warms up before a game on September 23,  2009, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Dale  MacMillan/Getty Images)

Theo Fleury warms up before a game on September 23, 2009, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Photo: Dale MacMillan/Getty Images)

In about 15 minutes Theo Fleury will take the stage at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in downtown Whitehorse, Yukon, to address a packed auditorium, but right now, in the back of the building, he’s stuck with a room full of reporters.

Fleury is perched at the edge of a plastic chair, his arms resting on a fold-up table in front of him. A black dress shirt hangs loosely from his frame. At first glance, it’s hard to believe that Fleury, who is 5’6”, played 16 years of professional ice hockey, and that he won a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal, and appeared in seven National Hockey League All-Star games. But when you hear him speak, with a fiery timbre; and you see his hands, which seem built for a human twice his size; and you meet his eyes, bulging and spring-coiled for eruption, it starts to make sense.

Fleury was loud and brash as a player, but in wait, in the auditorium, his fans are mostly silent. A few shift in their seats with restless energy. An anonymous cough emanates from somewhere. A child clomps through the aisle with heavy steps. The sounds linger in the empty air. It’s not what could be expected when a hockey legend visits a remote, hockey-loving Canadian city, but Fleury’s story is not easy to hear.

When he was 13, one of Fleury’s first coaches, Graham James, the man who Fleury says helped build his early belief system, convinced Fleury’s parents that he needed to leave his hometown in Russell, Manitoba, and head to Winnipeg, the provincial capital, for exposure, experience, and a shot at going pro.

Once Fleury moved, the sexual abuse began. It continued, every week, for the next two years. At 15, when he tried his first drink, Fleury says he became an instant alcoholic. “I didn’t know how to identify my feelings, but when I discovered alcohol, I knew how to make them go away,” he says. Drug addiction followed. “The direct result of my being abused was that I became a fucking raging, alcoholic lunatic,” he writes in his autobiography Playing With Fire.

Fleury has been sober now for more than a decade. He spends most of his days on the road, traveling to communities across Canada, sharing his story and listening to others share theirs. He calls himself a healing motivator. Hockey is just one of his antidotes. In each place he visits, he finds his way to the local rink. He sees, first hand, talented players who go undiscovered and right now, in the back room, that’s what’s on his mind.

“It’s a damn shame there are so few First Nation players in the NHL,” Fleury, who is Metis, tells the reporters. “I see the talent that is out there. The NHL doesn’t have a clue.”

While he speaks, there’s a spark of the intensity that once made him such a dangerous player. For most of his career, away from the game, Fleury’s life was smoldering at the edges, a haze of addiction and rage, and maybe that’s why he played the way that he did. He was relentlessly aggressive, a goal scorer and an agitator. On the ice, he played like a man on fire.

He shakes his head. “Not a friggin’ clue.”

In aboriginal communities across Canada, hockey is a vital sport, the arena a site to exchange culture and tradition. Local tournaments sometimes stretch out over weeks, and beyond the game there are elements of communal sharing, bonding, spirituality. The hockey itself is blistering and brawny, often beautiful to watch.

The players are undeniably skilled, but beyond the requisite talent, timing, luck, and opportunity that are needed to go pro in any sport, aboriginal athletes also face the legacy of a colonial relationship and cultural genocide.

Professional players endure racist taunts, stereotypes, and attitudes. Younger players learn the game in remote communities, often lacking in infrastructure, coaching, or even playing partners. Historically, aboriginal athletes have always been underrepresented in the NHL. Today, that still remains the case.

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Last June, when Carey Price, a goaltender with the Montreal Canadiens, was awarded the Vezina Trophy, given to the league’s best goalie, he used his acceptance speech to recognize First Nation youth.

“People would say it’s very improbable that I’d make it to this point in my life,” Price, who is a member of the Ulkatcho First Nation, told the crowd. “I made it here because I wasn't discouraged. I worked hard to get here, took advantage of every opportunity that I had. And I would really like to encourage First Nations youth to be leaders in their communities. Be proud of your heritage, and don’t be discouraged from the improbable.”

In closing he said “chanakya”—“thank you” in the Dakelh language.

Price is uniquely talented, one of the best in the world at what he does, but even he might have gone unnoticed if it weren't for an exceptional set of circumstances. Growing up in an isolated community in British Columbia, the closest minor hockey team was more than 200 miles away. His father, Jerry, made the drive a few times before purchasing a four-seater airplane, “a lawnmower with wings,” he told the Globe and Mail, to cut the distance. The plane bridged a gap that, for many, can be impossible to cross.

John Chabot, an Anishinabeg Algonquin from Kitigan Zibi First Nation in Quebec, played eight seasons in the NHL and says distance and the associated expenses are two major factors that keep aboriginal hockey players from reaching the professional ranks.

“In the north, people just don’t understand, unless you’ve been there, the obstacles these communities face in everything—not just in sport, but education, and infrastructure,” Chabot says. “The amount of travel that has be undertaken by communities and parents is huge and we take it for granted. For most people half an hour is a long time to get somewhere, for them that’s a walk down the street.”

Chabot has been visiting reserves and running hockey camps since 1988. He says that the talent, while sometimes exceptional at the peewee and bantam levels, begins to stagnate as the player’s mature. “The competition level isn’t high enough to keep the progression of the player going and I think that is directly attributed to where they live,” Chabot says. So he did something about it.

He is the head coach in Hit the Ice, a reality television series that gives players from northern reserves an opportunity to train with high-level coaches and be seen by scouts. Each season (shooting for season five is now underway), 25 prospects come together for two weeks and are put through a grueling mini-camp. Their reward is the opportunity to play in front of junior scouts with open roster spots on the line.

“It gives these kids who fall through the cracks another look, or a first look,” Chabot says. “It’s tough to get the kids down [to camps], or to get up there to see them. We’re not going to be able to see every child or player, but we’d like to, and we’ve had some great success.”

Kenneth-John Putulik, a defenseman from the arctic community of Chesterfield Inlet, on the western shore of Hudson Bay, was featured on season three. “I’m very proud of myself for being here,” he told the cameras during filming. “Not many Nunavut players could go to this camp and not many Inuit players are getting noticed.... I’m sure other people are proud of me, too.” By the end of the camp, Putulik had played his way onto the Onion Lake Border Chiefs, a junior team in Saskatchewan.

“We try and reach as far as we can, and we try and make as big of an impact as we can,” Chabot says. “I hope it’s succeeding in that way, to show First Nations and aboriginal kids that there is possibility.”

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In 1925, the New York Americans, New York’s first NHL team, signed a rookie player named Rene Boileau. Without his knowledge, Boileau, a French Canadian, was billed Rainy Drinkwater in the team’s press release, and said to have arrived to New York by way of the Caughnawaga Indian Reservation in Saskatchewan. He was, the team said, the first Native American in the NHL.

The story was reported on widely, with former Toronto Star sports editor Milt Dunnell writing that “He (Boileau) received more ink than Sitting Bull,” but it would be nearly 30 years until the first aboriginal athlete, Fred Sasakamoose, broke into the NHL. Sasakamoose, a member of the Ahtahkakoop First Nation, made his debut with the Chicago Blackhawks on a Saturday night in 1954.

Since Sasakamoose, who learned the game within the constraints of the residential school system, playing with a stick his grandfather carved from willow and a puck of frozen manure, there’s believed to have been 66 aboriginal athletes in the NHL. Currently, they are 10.

According to the anthology Race and Sport in Canada: Intersecting Inequalities, the number of aboriginal players in the NHL peaked in the 1990s, during the era of the enforcer. Aboriginal players were disproportionately cast in this role and treated as disposable bodies, there to absorb the blows of the opposition.

“There’s this stereotype that First Nations players are tough guys and that they can play through anything and they’ll fight,” says Michael Robidoux, the author of Stickhandling Through the Margins: First Nations Hockey in Canada. “And some kids can play like that, but a lot of them just want to play with skill.”

(This myth of aggression, and the villainization of aboriginal athletes, is the same sort of pervasive stereotype that led to Waneek Horn-Miller, a Mohawk from the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, being cut from Canada’s Olympic water polo team after nine years of service. The team cited “cohesion,” new teammates were apparently “terrified” and “intimidated” by her.Horn-Miller said the dismal was racially she motivated. “As an aboriginal Canadian, this sounds very familiar,” she told the Ottawa Citizen.)

Robidoux, who played junior hockey himself, spent three years doing the ethnographic research for his study. He visited First Nation communities and attended local hockey tournaments that displayed, he says, a level of passion and interest in the sport that he’s never seen in any other community context.

“To see a thousand people watching two very small communities play for a championship is incredible,” Robidoux says. “To see four generations of people cheering, and the pride connected to these events, it just simply blew me away.”

Outside of the tournaments, Robidoux also witnessed the individual skill that players develop when they are left to learn the game mostly on their own. “The kids have incredible hands, they were doing dangles I’ve never even seen before,” he says. The difficulty, though, comes in translating those individual skills to a team setting. “When I was a kid it was more about talent and now it’s really about coaching and efficiency,” Robidoux says. “It's a very organized and highly systematic game. I think a lot of those kids don’t have access to that, and I think that’s a bit of a deterrent from stepping up to that next level of hockey.”

This is something that Chabot believes is changing. He says resources are improving for structuring sports programs in the communities and that organizations are more focused on sustainability, “not just one-offs that are going up to talk and then leaving,” he says. “I think small steps are being taken, there’s a ways to go, but for the youth to succeed, in whatever it may be, the structure in the communities has to be better.”

“When you go across the country you see that if they [the athletes] had proper support and development they could make that next step to the NHL,” Robidoux says. “I think there’s so many opportunities for First Nations and indigenous people throughout Canada that just simply aren’t there. This is one example, but you can see, with a little support, how far it would go.”

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The first time Theo Fleury went to hockey practice he was five years old. His protective gear was a couple of shopping catalogues taped around his legs. Fleury says he knew, from that first day, that hockey was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.

Before his keynote speech at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, Fleury was across town at a local arena. He was out on the ice early, calm and alone, just his long shadow moving next to him under the gleam of the arena’s fluorescent lights. When the kids marched out of the dressing room to join him, Fleury smiled a little wider and kept moving forward. The young athletes crashed onto the ice and chased his shadow, they mimicked his movements, and fought as hard they could to keep from falling behind.

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