Big hockey in small places

The game really matters to First Nations communities of Canada

Date published: 2008-02-25 12:58:15 PM

The biggest hockey fans in Canada aren’t the ones in the plush seats at big league games in the city.

According to Michael Robidoux, a University of Ottawa researcher, you’ll find Canada’s most ardent fans sitting on the planks at rinks in small Aboriginal communities.

And the growing number of Aboriginal players at the game’s elite levels is just one byproduct of the huge passion for the sport he has documented at First Nations tournaments across the country.

Robidoux, whose research is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, says hockey has become a major source of pride in Aboriginal communities, many of which face daunting challenges outside the rink. His upcoming book will look at how First Nations are using hockey to build a sense of pride and accomplishment that extends beyond the game.

First Nations, he says, have embraced the sport at the community level. Entire villages—from babies to elders—travel to tournaments by car or even plane to cheer for their teams. “Arenas are packed,” says Robidoux. “That’s the fundamental difference from the tournaments I’m used to, where you might get 15 people in the stands—and three of them are girlfriends.”

Even at the local level, players are treated like stars, so hockey has become an important way for young people, especially young men, to be part of something positive.

And good Aboriginal players are celebrated across the country, regardless of their origin. That’s even more true when a player makes the jump to the game’s highest levels. “Jordin Tootoo was the first Inuk to play in the NHL,” says Robidoux, “but all First Nations celebrate his success as their own.

“There are lots of negative stories about First Nations in terms of hardship and poverty,” he says. “But as one chief said to me, ‘Hockey is an opportunity for the First Nations spirit to soar.’”

Michael Robidoux's research on hockey in Aboriginal communities was funded through SSHRC’s Standard Research Grants program.