Stories of Barriers Facing Indigenous Involvement in Mainstream Sport

Excerpts from:

“They Call Me Chief” Warriors on Ice
– written by Don Marks, Forward by Phil Fontaine

Reggie Leach: Page 64-66

Reggie also grew up “dirt poor,” with six brothers and six sisters, and he didn’t start playing hockey until he was 10 years old, simply because he couldn’t afford a pair of skates. “At the age of 10, I was old enough to be trusted enough for someone to borrow me a pair of skates, but I had to play by myself a lot outside. My grandparents didn’t have the money to pay for ice time at the local indoor arena. It was 25 cents an hour or $2.50 for the season. So I skated around on the outdoor rink. It was cold, and sometimes lonely, but a 10-year-old kid is never really alone because, in your imagination, you’re playing on some NHL team against another NHL team for the Stanley Cup.

“I remember that first pair of skates that I borrowed. They were size 11. My feet are size 7 now, so you can imagine how big those skates were on my 10-year-old feet! I stuffed newspapers in the boot so those skates wouldn’t fall off. And that’s how I started to skate.”

Finally, at the age of 14, Reggie got his own pair of brand new skates. He will only say that “the town of Riverton” bought those skates for him. Most important, they fit like a glove (okay, a shoe) and those blades were like wings. Reg was a natural hockey artisan, and he was soon in demand all over. As a matter of fact, at one point, Reggie was young enough (or old enough, but mostly good enough) to play bantam A, midget, juvenile and senior all at the same time, juggling the schedule of four different teams, which involved vastly different calibers of competition, against wildly differing age groups.

But the environment young Reggie was growing up in wasn’t fun all fun and games. Or maybe there was too much time for “fun and games.” Drinking alcohol was not only accepted in Riverton, it was expected by people of all ages. “I picked it up at the age of 12. It was considered normal.”

“When you’re young, you can get drunk and you have a pretty rapid recovery time. You’re not quite as up to snuff as you could be the day after, but if you only get drunk maybe twice a week, you don’t really notice the negative impact alcohol has, except, of course, when you’re actually drunk.”

Reggie didn’t play hockey when he was drunk, but sometimes he played hungover. He fought through the headaches and dehydration and, because he was a cut above the rest, he still dominated whatever players he faced and whatever games he played. And on those occasions when Reggie said “beddy-byes” at 8:30 p.m. after some “warm milk and cookies,” he was simply spectacular.

Reggie wasn’t too keen on school, even though he was rather a bright child. Reggie dropped out after grade 8, which left him with two options.

Pursue a career in hockey, or join a regular Riverton crowd, who worked at whatever job they could find during the day, and “drank it up” at night.

That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of solid working-class and business people in Riverton. Reggie’s background and upbringing simply didn’t fit the rural Manitoba norm. For him, it was going to be either a spectacular crash or landing.

This was most clearly laid out for Reggie one day by his coach, Sigg John, who sat the kid down and gave him a good talking to. Sigg knew that Reggie had been drinking a fait bit, so he met him in a restaurant across from a local bar, where they sipped coffee and watched a couple of local guys, who had become the town drunks, as they came staggering out of the bar. Sigg pointed out that the two drunks used to be pretty good hockey players, not unlike Reggie, but they chose booze, and “there they are.” This cold, hard, tough-love talk had an enormous impact on Reggie, and he straightened out his act, at least somewhat, for the time being.

Stan Jonathon: Page 102-103

Back at home and free from the discipline, demands and travel of professional hockey, Stan could spend more time with his family. But that didn’t mean he was through with the game. “Senior hockey is a pretty good caliber of hockey and I found a challenge there. I played with the Motts Clamatos Senior A team and we went to the Allan Cup [Canadian Senior Hockey Championship] finals.”

And then there were the Indian hockey tournaments. There are a lot of really great Indian players who didn’t end up on the path that led to the mainstream professional leagues. But across Canada, there are tournaments in First Nations communities that feature top-notch competition and some serious prize money.

“They would pay my travel and food and hotel and give me a few hundred bucks just to play the game that I love for a weekend. It wasn’t NHL money by any means, but I think I enjoyed it more because you got to play with your friends and you got to prove that you can still play. And you return home with a trophy after meeting a lot of good players from across the country and making a lot of new friends.


“Just as important, those tournaments brought me into First Nations communities where I could meet young people and try to offer a role model example of hard work and other positive values. I was surprised at how many of these young people knew who I was, but I guess their parents had talked about me and I really started to get into the pride we should have as Native people, and I tried to pass that on.”

Ron Delorme: Page 151-152

Dad came in handy in another,, more important, way. “That New York Rangers scout had recognized me because of my talent. But I was getting close to quitting because there were so many racial taunts directed towards me,

“I still had been dealing with it all physically. The sad part is that I became an aggressive person from it. Guys on the ice were treating me based on my race all the time. Then, the best words of wisdom that was given to me came from Dave ‘Tiger’ Williams. He told me, ‘You can’t keep fighting every time they call you a name. You are what you are.’ I thought about it and I decided to be proud of my heritage. If I was going to blame anyone, it could only be my parents, and that would be crazy!


“Tiger said, ‘If you want to hurt these people, look at the scoreboard. Just score goals! That is the way to keep these people really, really quiet.’ And that’s what I did.


“It isn’t like they report in the press where they say kids are protected from racial taunts. Or, at least it wasn’t in my younger days. It was very difficult because I simply thought I was succeeding like everybody else, but there was always this negative stuff attached to me.


“Then, of course, there was the loneliness. And, being the only Aboriginal on my junior teams, we were different socially. I never been told to watch a light before crossing a street or told what time to go to bed. There were all these rules. Fortunately, I was somewhat integrated because I didn’t grow up completely in a reserve environment.


“And I started to realize there was this stigma against Native kids. I was watched carefully because for some reason they thought I might not behave like the other kid. And I quickly realized that I had to be better than a white kid who had the same skills as me if I wanted to stick.


“There was a Native kid who was way better than me, Charlie Shear, but he had a few discipline problems, and he didn’t make it. I often wonder how big a star he could have become. Those discipline problems were minor things, but they turned out to be major if an Indian kid did it.”

and I started getting known as this ‘wagonburner.’ I really had a rough time to deal with it, but long talks with my dad really helped.”

Delorme’s dad, like many Indian dads, had plenty of first-hand experience with racism, and some sage advice to pass on: the seven sacred teachings of the Grandfathers – respect, love, goodness, truth, humility, courage and knowledge.

Ron began to practice the teachings his dad passed on, every day. But he maintains that wasn’t quite enough. It took some “tough love” and practical advice from a real tiger to take him over the top.

Remarks from Don Marks Page 228-229

Perhaps a good place to start is by asking, “Do we need special programs to increase the number of Natives playing in the NHL?” And, if we do, why?

According to every player we talked to during the filming of the documentary and the writing of this book, there is a definite need to make a special effort, and to develop special programs. These guys are the experts and we’ll just take them at their word. After all, who would know better than the guys who have been through it all and made it to the top?

But why do we need special programs? A major reason stems from the living conditions that many Native children and youth face growing up. Poverty is a major factor in prohibiting Native kids, any kids, from achieving their full potential in hockey. Equipment is very expensive. Facilities and league registrations cost a lot. Even Canadian parents with middle-class and upper-middle-class incomes face difficulties, especially if they have more than one child enrolled in an organized hockey program. Low income parents simply cannot afford to pay for the equipment, uniforms, ice times, referees, registration and travel costs, which are estimated at $5,000 per season per child in 2008. Many Native children do not get to play organized hockey, even recreational hockey, simply because of the cost.

The prohibitive impact of expenses is exacerbated in First Nations communities, who are struggling to provide basic amenities such as housing, clean water, sewage treatment, roads and other community-wide needs. Recreation has long been a luxury in First Nations communities.

For the most part, Native children must learn their hockey skills outdoor, which is historically not a bad thing, but certainly puts them at a disadvantage against children who have access to modern indoor facilities. And, face it, many First Nations communities are located in the far north where it gets extremely cold in the winter, making it prohibitive to play outdoors – although a benefit can be gained from a longer playing season, as long as there are funds to maintain the outdoor rinks.

In addition to equipment and access to facilities, aspiring hockey players benefit greatly from good teaching. Sometimes there are skilled, experienced players in a community who can pass on what they know to the younger children, but this is hit-and-miss at best. Ideally, a child can learn from teachers who not only can demonstrate the skills of hockey, but who have also been trained in the art of coaching. There is a big difference between knowing something and passing that knowledge on to others effectively.

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