The origins of hockey can be traced back well over a century. While there is some debate as to where the sport officially began, one thing is certain: Aboriginal people have been playing hockey for almost as long as there has been ice to play it on.
The first versions of hockey in Aboriginal communities were most likely played with carved one-piece wooden sticks and a makeshift puck. There is evidence that hockey may have started as a winter version of a pre-lacrosse game, invented by First Nations tribes hundreds of years ago.
It is well documented that over a hundred years ago, in New Brunswick, the Mi'kmaq tribes made the first one-piece sticks. These sticks were used for play in organized leagues at the early stages of organized hockey in Canada. With this history, it is no wonder that Aboriginal people have a connection to the game and that hockey plays a huge role in Aboriginal communities today.
Organized hockey in First Nations communities started with the advent of residential schools, where First Nations children lived for almost the entire school year. During the winter months, playing hockey as an extra-curricular activity became popular in the schools, and competition between First Nations and rival schools came into being.
Today, the tradition of competitive hockey for youth continues with many First Nations across Canada owning their own hockey teams at the Major Midget or Junior A level. The majority of these teams are mandated to give opportunities to Aboriginal hockey players who want to play at a high level of competition. This allows the players to further their hockey goals and increases their chances of moving on to play professional hockey. Although not all players on these teams are of Aboriginal origin, the teams are a sense of pride for their Aboriginal communities. Many First Nations also have their own senior men's teams that play in adult leagues, bringing together both Native and non-Native players.
The game of hockey has now become a part of the culture and tradition of Aboriginal communities. Many First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities host their own annual local tournaments, while still more have their own hockey rinks in their communities. As in any other community, it is not necessarily a high level of competition that is played at the local rink. More than for any other reason, hockey is played for the friendships and fun of it. Hockey is a social event, where friends and family get together, similar to other traditional activities and events.
Hockey plays a big role in Aboriginal communities across Canada; so much so that there are national programs that have recognized the need to make hockey more accessible to Aboriginal people. Programs implemented by the Aboriginal Sports Circle and the National Native Sports Program have been put into action as a means of giving Aboriginal hockey players an opportunity to better their hockey skills, while learning other lessons off of the ice. The Aboriginal Sports Circle is one of the partners in the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships, a yearly tournament for Bantam and Midget aged players. The tournament allows Aboriginal players to play at a high level of competition and to represent their region while playing against other Aboriginal people. In addition to these tournaments, there are all-Native tournaments across Canada that have become a yearly event.
For Aboriginal people and their communities, hockey is much more than a team sport or mere game. Hockey is a community event and watching it is becoming somewhat of a tradition. Over the last few decades, the numbers of Aboriginal children playing hockey has increased dramatically. It may have something to do with the fact that more and more Aboriginal players are making it to the National Hockey League (NHL).
In the early 1950s, there were only a couple of hockey players of Aboriginal descent playing in the NHL. Fred Sasakamoose, from the Ahtakakoop First Nation in Saskatchewan and George Armstrong, from Skead, Ontario, have been credited with breaking down barriers for Aboriginal hockey players. While Sasakamoose did not play a full season in the league, his being part of an NHL team was an enormous accomplishment because at the time he played, there were only 6 franchises in the NHL.
Another early Aboriginal professional was 'Chief' George Armstrong, who spent 21 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs and won 4 Stanley Cups in the 1960s. He was one of the most prominent NHLers of his generation, having captained the Leafs to their last Cup win in 1967.
Players like Saskamoose and Armstrong paved the way for other big-name Aboriginal players of the 1970s like Reggie Leach, Bryan Trottier and Stan Jonathan. Leach and Trottier were NHL All-Stars, both having long, outstanding NHL careers. Jonathan was also one of the first Aboriginal enforcers in the league, leading the way for enforcers like Gino Odjick, Sandy McCarthy and Chris Simon.
More and more however, Aboriginal players are being recognized for their skill as well as their enforcing abilities. Wade Redden, of the Ottawa Senators, for example, is a Métis from Saskatchewan. Redden has represented Canada on numerous occasions, most recently with Team Canada on the World Cup 2004 team.
Sheldon Souray, a Métis from Alberta, is a defenseman with the Montreal Canadiens. Souray played in the NHL All-Star game in 2004, after having had a breakout first half to the 2003-04 season. He scored his first career hat trick and then a few weeks later, established a record with the Montreal Canadiens for the most points scored by a defensemen: 6 points (one goal and five assists).
Jonathan Cheechoo, a Cree from Moose Factory, Ontario, stood out in the NHL's Young Stars game during All-Star weekend in 2004. Cheechoo tallied 4 assists and tied for first with his San Jose Sharks, scoring 28 goals in only his second season in the league. There is also Jordin Tootoo, the first Inuk to be drafted by an NHL team and the first to play in an NHL game. Tootoo spent the entire 2003-04 season with the Nashville Predators. There are also a growing number of Aboriginal players in the minor leagues, waiting for their turn to crack NHL rosters.
With so many former NHL players of Aboriginal descent as role models, and with the example of young Aboriginal stars who are currently working their way to elite status in the NHL, it is no wonder that there are so many young Aboriginal children who want to play hockey. Whether or not any of these children make it to the NHL, hockey in Aboriginal communities is as strong as it has ever been. Children play hockey simply for the love of playing; for the camaraderie that can only exist between players who have sat next to each other on the bench, who have shared a locker room, and who have shared the highs and lows of playing a team sport. Although the rules of hockey have changed and the game has evolved, the goal of the game has always been the same: to have fun and play hard. In Aboriginal communities, hockey is the tie that binds.
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