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Canada's Apartheid, by John Stackhouse
Stories
Introduction
  Nov. 3

Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
  Nov. 3 (Saskatoon, SK)

Crystal's choice: The best of both worlds
  Nov. 5 (Mississauga, ON)

How the Mi'kmaq profit from fear
  Nov. 6 (Cape Breton, NS)

The healing power of hockey
  Nov. 7 (The Pas, MB)

Norma Rae of the Okanagan
  Nov. 8 (Westbank, BC)

Comic genius or 'niggers in red face'?
  Nov. 9 (Regina, SK)

Praying for a miracle
  Nov. 10 (Lac Ste. Anne, AB)

To have and to have not
  Nov. 12 (Moosonee, ON)

Trouble in paradise
  Nov. 19 (Tofino, BC)

A cut of the action
  Nov. 26 (Wabigoon, ON)

The young and the restless
  Dec. 3 (Ashern, MB)

The wireless warrior's digital dream
  Dec. 10 (Ottawa,ON)

'Everyone thought we were stupid'
  Dec. 14 (Salluit, QC)

First step: End the segregation
  Dec. 15 (Last in the series)

 

The healing power of hockey

Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by Patti Gower
The Globe and Mail, November 7, 2001

Part 4 of 6: The subtle differences


The Pas locator The day after OCN's big win, racism seems to be the last thing on anyone's mind as the Blizzard board a chartered bus bound for Winkler, seven hours south across a dreary table of farmland, frozen lakes and forests still sprinkled with snow. Because its fans have booked every hotel room in the Winkler area, the team will spend the night in Winnipeg. Even so, the coach is in a good mood, joking about what southern Manitoba's Mennonites may do to his team.

"Be careful," he warns the players, who seem more interested in a copy of Playboy. "I hear the Winkler fans will throw Bibles at you."

For the rest of the journey, there is little to do but watch videos, play Survivor trivia - and show off. Most of the players remove their shirts to show off their pecs and abs. Other than race, there is not much to distinguish them. They are all 16 to 20, and most have dyed their hair blond - but not Steve MacIntyre, a Saskatchewan farm boy, and Ryan Braun, from a remote northern Cree reserve. They have shaved their heads.

The players like to say they stay as one, whether on the ice or in school or at a party. Even the natives prefer to have billets across the river in The Pas, where houses typically are less crowded than on the reserve.

But there are subtle differences, which the native players quietly say is why their numbers are so few.

The team's top native scorer, Jamie Muswagon from Cross Lake, about 300 kilometres northeast of The Pas, says he and the other Cree players like to go hunting and ice fishing together. They don't need a licence, for one thing, and out in the wild, they can talk freely about the isolation that shaped their upbringing in hockey.

Muswagon first left home to play in Brandon, west of Winnipeg, but at 16 he felt so alienated that he went back to Cross Lake every other weekend. Many native hockey careers end at the midget level because leaving a close-knit community proves too painful.

The native players also talk about Perry, but only a little. They agree that he broke the team rules. He missed practices. He drank heavily. Some of them understand why, but that does not mean they want to pay a price on the ice because of it. "Some of our players don't buy into the `program' - the drinking, the after-hours stuff," says Jim Smith, the team's early backer. "Sometimes the youth, they may have the talent, but not all that it takes to be a hockey player."

But slowly, he believes, the Blizzard's discipline is rubbing off on a younger generation. "They're starting to understand hockey is not just a sport, it's a lifestyle, the development of a human being."

Others are not so sure, not when so many aboriginal players must struggle growing up on remote and often socially dysfunctional reserves. Even athletes face the same stigmas, says former team manager Derek Fontaine, who played professional hockey. "The thing that pisses me off," he says, "is that, once a native kid has a couple of beers, he is given that stereotype: He's a boozer."

Fontaine now manages the Southeast Blades, which last season carried 14 native players as well as Perry's Young's brother, Mike, but had the worst record in the league. With just seven wins in 64 games, the franchise was on the brink of financial collapse.

Talent is not the problem, Fontaine argues. "I say native kids playing hockey are more gifted than a lot of non-native kids - they're just naturally gifted. But when it comes to making that next step, the discipline is not there. . . . There's just too much love." Parents "love their kids to the point where, if the kids do something wrong, they won't correct it," he explains

Last season, the Blades cut a 17-year-old player over chronic alcohol and drug abuse. When Fontaine called the young man's grandmother, who was his guardian, she would not believe what he told her.

As the Blizzard bus passes through the first scattered settlements between Manitoba's big lakes, and another action-thriller video begins, a few players at the back eat potato chips and talk about their own struggles with hockey off the ice.

Braun, a brick-like forward from the hamlet of Wabowden, north of The Pas, had to drive with his father 100 kilometres every day to his midget team's practice and games in Thompson. Most of his friends couldn't count on a parent to make the same trip. Finally, his own parents grew tired of the driving, and paid $400 a month for him to billet with a Thompson family, on top of the $1,300 a year they spent on equipment and arena fees.

Tootoo, the Inuit team captain from the Northwest Territories, faced a greater challenge while learning to play hockey in Rankin Inlet. The town had an arena, but not enough players to form two teams, so everyone played shinny - it was impossible to play a proper game. Tootoo didn't learn a set position until he moved to Thompson when he was 16, and a coach once benched him for chasing the puck all over the ice.

He made the transition well enough to lead the league in scoring, but he knows how many people feel. "I kept hearing things like, `You guys aren't going to make it.' There's a lot of `downs' in native communities - drugs, alcohol."

But he does not despair for aboriginal kids - they just have to be tougher, he says, in body and spirit. He has not forgotten what his father told both him and his brother, Jordan, who plays for the Brandon Wheat Kings: that hockey could be their ticket out of Rankin Inlet.

"I have no respect for those kids who just give up," he says. "I see those guys when I go home for the summer and they're doing nothing. If you give up, you'll be a nobody."

THIS STORY AT A GLANCE (Parts 1 to 6):

Photo Essay
A Sporting Chance


1. More than a game
Bridging the community after Helen Betty Osborne's murder

2. The Blizzard calms a racial storm
OCN emerges from a murder looking forward

3. 'The Pride of OCN'
The tragic life of Perry Young

4. The subtle differences
Talent isn't the problem, one coach says, but discipline

5. 'There isn't a white way of passing'
Two communities look for ways to work together

6. Home to a feared Champion
The Cree Nation is no longer an easy target for racists


 
 

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Two worlds - photo essay


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