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Where did the game of hockey begin? That is a question that may never have an answer. What we do know for sure is that Aboriginal people have been playing hockey for almost as long as there has been ice to play it on.
The first hockey may have been played with carved one-piece sticks and whatever puck-like object happened to be lying around. It may have started as a winter version of an early type of lacrosse game that was invented by the First Nations hundreds of years ago. We know that the first hockey sticks were made in New Brunswick by the Mi'kmaq, over 100 years ago.
Organized hockey began in First Nations communities when children were sent to residential schools. Away from home for almost the entire year, children played hockey during the winter months. Before long, there were competitions between the various schools.
Today, First Nations across Canada have their own hockey teams at the Midget or Junior A level. Some of the players on these teams may become professional hockey players. Many First Nations have their own senior men's teams that play in adult leagues, bringing together Native and non-Native players.
Many First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities host their own annual tournaments. Of course, hockey is also played just for the fun of it and to share good times with friends. Family and friends get together at the rink to enjoy each other's company. Hockey has become a part of Aboriginal culture and tradition.
National programs by the Aboriginal Sports Circle and the National Native Sports Program help Aboriginal players to improve their hockey skills. Players also learn other lessons such as team spirit and fair play that are just as useful off of the ice. The National Aboriginal Hockey Championships is a tournament of Bantam and Midget-aged players held every year. There are also all-Native tournaments held across Canada every year.
More and more Aboriginal kids are playing hockey. In the early 1950s, there were only a few Aboriginal players in the National Hockey League (NHL). More and more Aboriginal hockey players are now making it to the NHL. Here are some examples:
Sandy Lake Cree
Ahtakakoop First Nation, Saskatchewan
Fred did not play a full season in the NHL, but that was at a time when there were only six hockey teams in the league. He played centre for the Chicago Blackhawks.
George, nicknamed "Chief", played 21 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs. This right-winger won four Stanley Cups in the 1960s. He was the Leafs' captain in their last Stanley Cup win in 1967.
Reggie, a right-winger, played for the Boston Bruins, California Golden Seals, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings. He played in the 1976 and 1980 NHL All-Star games.
Stan was one of the first Aboriginal enforcers in the league. This left-winger played for the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins.
Gino, a right-winger, played for the Vancouver Canucks, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and Montréal Canadiens. He was an enforcer.
Sandy, a right-winger, played for the Calgary Flames, Tampa Bay Lightning, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers. He was an enforcer.
Chris, a left-winger, played for the Québec Nordiques, Colorado Avalanche, Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks. He was an enforcer.
Wade, a defenceman for the Ottawa Senators, represented Canada in many international tournaments, including playing for Team Canada in the World Cup 2004. He also played in the NHL All-Star game in 2002.
Elk Point, Alberta
Sheldon, a defenceman with the New Jersey Devils and Montréal Canadiens, played in the NHL All-Star game in 2004.
Moose Factory, Ontario
Jonathan, a right-winger, played with the San Jose Sharks. He was also one of the first Aboriginal enforcers in the league.
Rankin Inlet, Nunavut
Jordin was the first Inuk to be drafted by the NHL. He spent the 2003-2004 season with the Nashville Predators.
Former players Bryan Trottier and Ted Nolan are now NHL coaches. Ron Delorme, also a former NHL player, is the Chief Amateur Scout of the Vancouver Canucks.
With plenty of former NHL Aboriginal players and lots more young Aboriginal stars on their way to the NHL, it is no wonder that there are so many Aboriginal kids who want to play hockey. Not all of them will get to the NHL, but hockey in Aboriginal communities will remain strong. Kids play hockey for the love of the game, for the team spirit and for the friendships they make. The rules may have changed and the game has evolved, but the goal is still to have fun and play hard. Hockey is at the heart of many Aboriginal communities.
Visit the website ARCHIVED - Backcheck: a Hockey Retrospective