National Hockey League embraces aboriginals

National Hockey League embraces aboriginals

PORT ALBERNI, British Columbia — With the season-long National Hockey
League lockout now settled, a dozen aboriginal league players have taken to
the ice for the 2005 — ’06 season.

It’s a long, hard road to the NHL; and according to Montreal Canadiens and
Team Canada player Sheldon Souray, that road is even longer for players
from remote aboriginal communities.

“I moved from Fishing Lake to Edmonton when I was 13 so I could play in the
city league,” said the 29-year-old, 6-foot-4-inch, 227-pound Metis
defenseman. “It was really hard to do. As close-knit as Native people and
communities are, a lot of kids get really homesick and call it quits. I
guess I was lucky because my parents made me endure the separation so I
could get to where I am today.”

According to Souray, there is a huge amount of hockey talent waiting to be
discovered while playing on the frozen ponds and outdoor rinks of American
Indian communities across Canada and the United States.

Limited numbers of junior hockey scouts means the smaller leagues and rinks
are ignored, and indigenous players have to relocate to join large
city-league teams in order to have their talents properly recognized.

Sheldon’s road to the NHL included stops in Quesnell, Prince George and
Kelowna, British Columbia, before being drafted by the New Jersey Devils in
1994, playing in 60 games for the Devils in the 1996 — ’97 season and
scoring three goals, including his first NHL goal — a game-winning marker
— on Dec. 16, 1997 against the New York Rangers. During the 1998 — ’99
season, he scored once and added seven assists in 70 games before being
traded to Montreal on March 1, 2000.

The path was similar for the New York Islanders’ small but feisty Metis
center Arron Asham, who left his home in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba for
teams in Red Deer, Alberta and Fredericton, New Brunswick before being
drafted by the Canadiens in 1996.

“You see a lot of good aboriginal players playing in small communities or
in their own leagues on the reservations,” said Asham. “But you don’t get
any exposure there, so you have to play in the highly competitive city
leagues.”

Aboriginal NHLers recognize that hockey is an expensive sport to play, and
the costs can be prohibitive for many parents.

“It’s not that easy for the average family to have a hockey son any more,”
said Souray. “There has to be something done to help out the kids who
really want to play, but are unable to because of costs,” Asham echoed.

“What it comes down to is the fact that there are a number of aboriginal
players in the NHL proving to our kids that they can be here living their
dream if it’s what they want,” said recently-retired NHLer Gino Odjick.

“There’s more than 20 aboriginal guys in the league now, and the exposure
that comes with being a professional hockey player allows us to encourage
the young players, showing them that it’s possible,” said Odjick, who is
from the Kitigan Zibi (formerly called River Desert) Algonquin Nation of
Quebec.

“It’s hard to break out from a life on a reservation and make it on the
outside, and a lot of our kids fall through the cracks,” said Odjick. “If
you want to make it in the NHL you have to leave your home, your community
and your family, which is often particularly hard for Native kids.”

The Vancouver Canucks, at the urging of head scout Ron Delorme, a Metis
former NHL star, drafted Odjick in 1990. “I was the only Native in the NHL
back then. There was just me,” said Odjick, who went on to play for the New
York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens. “We became
better represented over the next 10 to 15 years,” he said.

Today, there are 12 aboriginal NHLers, down from 20 in the 2003 — ’04
season.

The highest paid aboriginal player is Wade Redden, Metis, from the Ottawa
Senators, who earns $3.7 million per season — that’s well below top
wage-earner Jaromir Jagr (New York Rangers), who bags $8.36 million per
season.

Aboriginal NHLers such as Asham, Souray, Jonathan Cheechoo (San Jose
Sharks) and Jordin Tootoo (Nashville Predators) readily make themselves
available in the off-season to speak with First Nations kids about their
secrets to success.

“You’ve got to work hard, keep your nose clean and have fun,” said Souray,
who spends his summers teaching at his own hockey school in St. Paul,
Alberta. “Every player in the NHL has had to overcome some form of
adversity to get here: that’s one of the reasons being an NHL player is so
special,” he said.

“Native players are no different from any other ethnic minority. There are
always going to be some people who try to hold you back,” said Souray. “We
shouldn’t use it as a crutch or a negative, though. We have to rise above
it and always remember there are many people who have it a lot worse.”

2005 SEASON ABORIGINAL NHL PLAYERS

NAME NATION TEAM SALARY

Arron Asham Metis NY Islanders $627,000

Jonathan Cheechoo Cree San Jose Sharks $760,000

Dan Cloutier Metis Vancouver Canucks $2,450,000

Scott Ferguson Metis Minnesota Wild $450,000

Theo Fleury Metis Chicago Blackhawks suspended

Sandy McCarthy Micmac New York Rangers unsigned

Cody McCormick Metis Colorado Avalanche

Wade Redden Metis Ottawa Senators $3,724,000

Jamie Rivers Huron Detroit Red Wings $450,000

Chris Simon Ojibwa Calgary Flames $1,216,000

Sheldon Souray Metis Montreal Canadiens $2,128,000

Joey Teterenko Metis Minnesota Wild

Jordin Tootoo Innu Nashville Predators

Darcy Tucker Metis Toronto Maple Leafs $1,596,000

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