First Nations and the NHL
by Josh Cuppage
May 09, 2012
Given that the NHL playoffs are in full swing I thought I’d take the opportunity to investigate First Nations achievements in athletics – and in this post, specifically hockey.
Many of Canada’s best athletes tend at one time or another to be steered towards hockey, and aboriginal athletes are no exception. No fewer than 10 people of indigenous heritage play in the NHL right now (this is believed to be an all-time high), with the most prominent likely being Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price. Price’s mother is a former Chief of the Ulkatcho First Nation in British Columbia, and Price remains active in that community today. Other aboriginal names you might recognize from the ranks of professional hockey include Aaron Asham, Rene Bourque and T.J. Oshie.
First Nations people have triumphed in the NHL throughout the league’s history and at all levels of the game. Names like Grant Fuhr, Bryan Trottier and Ted Nolan are synonymous with success at the highest levels of the game, but not everyone is aware that they are all of indigenous heritage! Fuhr and Trottier are both Hall of Fame players who’ve won the Stanley Cup. Nolan was named the NHL’s coach of the year in 1997, and is currently the head coach of the Latvian national team which is competing in the current World Championships on TSN.
Anyone who attended Stolen From a Hockey Card, a music and storytelling performance during last year’s Hockey Day in Canada festivities in Whitehorse, is also very aware of the story of the great Reggie Leach. Leach had a magnificent NHL career as a right-winger, twice scoring 50 or more goals in a season. In 1976, he led the league in goals, surpassing greats like Guy Lafleur and Darryl Sittler. Despite that and despite winning a Stanley Cup and a playoff MVP award, he has not been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Some fans have a petition going in his honour to try and get him in and John K. Samson of popular Winnipeg band The Weakerthans even has a song about it.
This spring, the hopes of aboriginal people across the country could be, oddly enough, with Southern California and Arizona. Dwight King, suitably enough, is a member of the Los Angeles Kings, is Metis, and is one of two aboriginal people left in this year’s NHL playoffs. King, from the Northern Saskatchewan community of Meadow Lake, scored his first career playoff goal in the fourth game of the Kings’ recent series versus St. Louis. At the young age of 22, King’s career is just heating up. In the minor and junior leagues, he was known as a playmaking centre, so he is definitely a player for hockey fans to keep an eye on!
In the Stanley Cup semi-finals, King will be facing off against journeyman centre Kyle Chipchura of the Phoenix Coyotes. Chipchura’s career has been up and down, marked by demotions to the minor leagues and long stretches on the bench, but, as with the entire Coyotes team, he’s on an upswing right now going further into the playoffs than ever before. Chipchura, from the Edmonton-area community of Westlock, has also scored points in both series-clinching games for the Coyotes this spring, versus Chicago and more recently against Nashville.
Seeing as Chipchura and King will be squaring off in the third round, it’s guaranteed that one of the two will go to the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in his career. One of them could even start the summer by having his name engraved on the Cup!
This blog post is the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series. In the fall, I’ll be back with a look at how aboriginal athletes (not just from Canada, but from around the world) fared at this summer’s London Olympics. Future posts will look at lacrosse and First Nations-specific competitions (such as the burgeoning First Nations Summer/Winter Games), so stay tuned!