Hockey may be Canada’s game but it has a poor track record of including marginalized groups.
At a summit in Toronto this past January, in front of a crowd of 400, the non-profit organization the Carnegie Initiative announced that it was partnering with Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU) to conduct a study on how to establish the first professional hockey franchise led by First Nations owners.
The Carnegie Initiative, which is named after Herb Carnegie, a black hockey star in the 1940s and 50s who spent much of his life fighting for equality in the sport, aims to make hockey more diverse and inclusive. This was the organization’s second annual summit.
The study referred to as The Spirit Project is being led by TMU professors Richard Norman and Cheri L. Bradish. According to Norman, the study will involve undergraduate students connecting with stakeholders, such as Ted Nolan, a former NHL star, a Carnegie Initiative board member, and a member of the Ojibway tribe. The stakeholders will provide the students with a broader knowledge of the current hockey landscape and First Nations culture. Using this information and their own research, students will develop a viable plan for creating a First Nations-led hockey franchise. The plans will be presented to the Carnegie Initiative in April.
“It’s not necessarily looking at playing at the NHL level,” Norman says. “Although, I think down the road, there’s always the possibility of an expansion franchise. But really, what I think it’s looking at is multiple leagues, men’s and women’s, and also how this might play out on the international side.”
First Nations have a long history with hockey. According to the nonprofit organization Native Hockey, Europeans first observed ice hockey being played by Mi’kmaq Indians in Nova Scotia in the late 1600s, using a frozen apple as a puck.
Fred Sasakamoose from Saskatchewan was the first Native player in the NHL, lacing up for the Chicago Blackhawks in the mid-1950s. He was followed by other great players, including Theo Fleury and Carey Price.
One of the goals of The Spirit Project, which will be carried on by graduate students after the April presentations, is to see whether an Indigenous team could play as its own nation on the international stage. “There are examples around the world, like Maori nations playing rugby as a separate entity from New Zealand,” Norman says. This could include men’s and women’s First Nations teams squaring off against Canada in the Olympics.
The international stage, however, may still be a few years off. In the short term, Norman says he hopes the study will provide grassroots initiatives to help connect First Nations youth to hockey. “The professional franchise would act as a conduit so that there’s representation from the front office to the coaching staff to everywhere, showing how Indigenous folks can be connected with the game and the different aspects of how that comes together,” he says. “Then also looking at on-ice and off-ice activities for indigenous youth to help their skills and development throughout the process.”
To support these initiatives, students will look at travel time to games, how to create leagues that provide different levels of play, and what the development of the sport, in terms of social change, looks like for First Nations youth.
“Looking into the future, there are going to be tensions,” Norman says. “But if we’re looking at true reconciliation and the decolonizing of our sports systems, and what that looks like, I think it does ask those deeper questions of what does nationhood look like, and what is sovereignty going to mean within the Canadian context.”