RED DEER – Indigenous youth face many challenges when it comes to participating in hockey in Alberta.
And while the challenges are significant, the opportunities and potential solutions were an important focus during Friday night’s keynote discussion to open Hockey Alberta’s Indigenous Hockey Summit.
The virtual event opened with a Zoom roundtable featuring Theoren Fleury, Wacey Rabbit, Marvin Yellowhorn, and Jordan Courtepatte. The discussion was moderated by Travis Plaited Hair of the Blood Tribe.
Fleury is well known for his career with the Calgary Flames, and as a victor over trauma and abuse. Rabbit played on the 2003 Team Alberta squad that won gold at the Canada Winter Games, enjoyed a successful junior hockey career, and played professionally around the world, most recently in the East Coast Hockey League. Courtepatte’s career included junior hockey in the BCHL, and a professional stint in the Central Hockey League in Texas. And Yellowhorn has been involved in hockey most of his life as a parent (he is Rabbit’s father), coach, and volunteer.
As the panelists reflected on their careers and lives in hockey, they identified three areas where the hockey community can focus to help increase the number of Indigenous participants and improve their experience in the sport.
One area is cost. Rabbit reflected on how much the cost of a hockey stick or a pair of skates has increased since he played as a child, and said he believes “a lot of natural athletes are missing out because of the pricing.”
Courtepatte, who helped found the Enoch Cree Minor Hockey Association near Edmonton, said the sport is simply getting too expensive.
“The average family can’t afford to pay for one kid… There needs to be additional resources in place to offset costs,” said Courtepatte, adding that it’s also important to make sure parents are educated to know where to apply for assistance.
The second area that must be addressed is racism.
Courtepatte said that while steps have been taken to address racism, it continues, and it’s not acceptable.
“It’s a lonely place when it feels like no one wants you,” Courtepatte said.
Rabbit said he has experienced racism while playing hockey.
“It’s in the world right now, it’s happening everywhere,” Rabbit said. “It’s happened to everyone on this panel. It is important for minor hockey associations to acknowledge (when racism occurs) and do something about it.”
The third area involves understanding the challenges that Indigenous youth are facing in their personal lives. Fleury talked about a need for “trauma-informed education” within schools and the sporting community.
“We have no idea what these kids are experiencing before they get to the rink,” Fleury said. “A lot of their behaviour is based on what they’ve experienced at home. We have to be aware that when a kid is acting out it’s because of their trauma experience, not because he’s a bad kid. Often, the only place he gets peace and joy is playing hockey, so we’ve got to make it the best experience we can.”
The panelists agreed that a key part of the solution involves more Indigenous people being involved at all levels of the sport including board members, coaches, managers, and officials.
“When you come to the rink and see a person who looks like you, that’s important,” said Rabbit. He also reminded everyone that it’s important to celebrate the success stories, highlighting Brayden Arcand, an official who is now working in the Western Hockey League.
The panelists agreed that the benefits to addressing these challenges are immense. Positive hockey experiences will help Indigenous youth learn to deal better with adversity, develop important life skills, and have family and community growth opportunities. And, as Fleury suggested, he believes the next Wayne Gretzky is out there, if given the chance to play hockey.
Hockey Alberta, in partnership with the Indigenous Sport Council of Alberta, is hosting the Indigenous Hockey Summit to gather hockey leaders from around the province to continue the growth of the game in Indigenous hockey communities and allow for networking and sharing best practices.
The Summit continues Saturday with separate day-long sessions for Minor Hockey Administrators, Coaches and Officials.