But the band also believed in success; after all, it had built a small-business empire. It decided to hire the best coach and managers, regardless of race, and soon there was pressure from many reserve residents to recruit players the same way.
"How OCN operates is epitomized by this team," says Jim Smith, one of the Blizzard's founders. "We get the best management we can."
The band put up $100,000 to bring in a coach and a general manager from Saskatchewan. It renovated the dressing rooms and training room to semi-pro standards. And it allowed the new management team to scour Western Canada for the best players available.
Perry Young was among the first cuts. Still, with 16 natives on the first year's roster and a physical style of northern hockey, the Blizzard became known as a native team. As a result, the players, native or not, discovered the true feelings of some Prairie people. On road trips, they were jeered as "welfare bums" and "drunks." In one arena, security guards were stationed in the sections where Blizzard fans sat. A now-defunct Web site claiming to represent the MJHL went so far as to state that OCN home games were always sold out because "they're all on welfare."
Even when the Blizzard shocked the league by making the playoffs in its debut season, the racism did not let up. Phillip Albert, a player from remote Norway House, says an opposing coach once yelled "fucking Indian" at him. His childhood friend, Clifford Scatch, says another coach called him "a brown, buck-toothed Indian," but he says it does not bother him. "Racism, I'm used to it. I've had it my whole life. If I ever hear a remark, I let it blow by."
In time, the Blizzard came to be seen as some kind of ghetto for native players. Jerry Mosiondz, an assistant coach, noticed that other teams had begun to call, offering to trade their own native players. "They usually say, `We think he would fit in there,' " Mosiondz says. "I ask, `If the boy's a good hockey player, why doesn't he fit in with you?' "
Still, the more the Blizzard won, the less the Crees seemed to care about affirmative action on the ice. When the team, in its third season, set a league record for wins and captured the provincial championship, the fans clamoured for more star players to help reach the national finals. The Cree management agreed, and dropped one of its original goals: a roster that's two-thirds native.
By last year, the team that once dressed 16 native players was down to six, and only one who was local - a Métis boy from The Pas. Coach Kerry Clark (brother of former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark) used his connections across Canada, and a handsome budget from the Crees, to acquire the best players under 21 he could find.
By season four, Perry Young, the Pride of OCN, was one of those players. He came to training camp with added strength and speed - and pressure. When he did not get as much ice time as other players, local fans, including his uncle Danny, who was on the team's board of directors, demanded to know why. Clark told the board that Perry routinely arrived late for practice, sometimes still drunk from the night before. Then, a couple of months into the season, Perry simply stopped showing up.
Clark struck his name from the roster, and was called a "racist" to his face at a community meeting. A second man demanded that he resign, but many more people supported him. They liked the championship banners draped over centre ice - it gives their kids something to dream about, they said. They also like being the centre of Manitoba hockey's attention, and they enjoy driving to distant places such as Winkler and watching their team whip the opposition.
Perhaps most of all, they liked the idea that townspeople now drive to the reserve for entertainment, and pay the native band for it.
Last year, the arena's concession stand alone contributed almost $50,000 to OCN minor hockey teams, which travelled to Long Island, N.Y., and British Columbia and this winter plans to go to Sweden.
In time, Perry Young faded from view and the team did not hear much about him until the summer of 2000, when his girlfriend had a baby boy. She then kicked him out of their house, telling him to sober up before he could move back. That September, while on a binge, Perry pushed his way into the house, took a carving knife from the kitchen and, in front of his girlfriend and baby, stabbed himself five times in the heart. His mother, Marlene, reached the scene within minutes, but he was already gone.
To this day, she believes that the hockey team bears some responsibility for her son's suicide. She feels that its emphasis on winning has overshadowed the many social problems that native kids often carry. If Perry drank, it was because he had to carry the expectations of a community, she says.
"They did say local boys break the rules, come late. I've heard people say it about our kids: `They're drunks. They're lazy. They're no good,' " Marlene says. "Who are they to judge that these [non-native] Blizzard don't break the rules? They turn around and treat them better than our kids."
So now she refuses to let her eldest son, Mike, try out for the Blizzard (he plays for the Southeast Blades, the province's only other junior native team), and talks about leaving the community so that her youngest, 10-year-old Garrett, can play elsewhere.