EDMONTON, Alberta – It’s game night at a sold out Rexall Place.
The rafters shake as 17,000 hockey fans cheer wildly every time Edmonton Oiler Sheldon Souray touches the puck in the opponents zone.
Known for his blistering shot from the point, and his punishing checks into the boards, the six-foot-four, 235-pound defenseman is arguably the most known and feared aboriginal player in the National Hockey League. With 23 goals this season, Souray is the second-highest scoring defenseman in the league.
Although aboriginal players are a rarity in the NHL, there are nine Native players currently spread amongst the 32 teams, and on that night Souray faced one of his peers.
Photo courtesy www.nativehockey.com Cody McCormick
Cody McCormick has spent the past five seasons with the Colorado Avalanche. A member of the Chippewa Mohawk Nation near London, Ontario, McCormick said he looks forward to facing other Native players, and hopes more will soon graduate to the big league.
“You know when you’re going to be facing other [aboriginal players] just because there’s not that many of us,” McCormick said. “I look forward to nights like tonight, going up against another Native player. It makes me work that much harder out there.”
The road to hockey’s top league is long and hard, and according to Souray, that road is even longer for players from remote aboriginal communities.
“I moved from Fishing Lake to Edmonton when I was 13 so I could play in the city league,” said the 11-season NHL veteran. “It was really hard to do. As close knit as Native people and communities are, a lot of kids get really homesick and call it quits. I guess I was lucky because my parents made me endure the separation so I could get to where I am today.”
Souray said there is a huge amount of hockey talent waiting to be discovered on the frozen ponds and outdoor rinks of Native communities across Canada. Limited numbers of junior hockey scouts means the smaller leagues and rinks are ignored, and aboriginal players have to relocate to join large city league teams to be noticed by the right people.
The path was similar for the Philadelphia Flyers’ small but feisty Metis centre, Arron Asham, who left his home in Portage La Prairie, Manitoba for teams in Red Deer, Alberta and Fredericton, New Brunswick before being drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 1996.
Current Aboriginal NHL’ers
Aaron Asham, Metis, Philadelphia Flyers
“You see a lot of good aboriginal players playing in small communities or in their own leagues on the reservations,” Asham said. “But you don’t get any exposure there, so you have to play in the highly competitive city leagues.”
Between games and during the off-season, most aboriginal NHL players can be found working in remote communities, encouraging aspiring hockey players to pursue their dreams.
“I try to do whatever I can to help the next generation,” McCormick said. “Jonathan Cheechoo was a big influence for me, so I hope I can pass that on to other kids.”
“What it comes down to is the fact that there are a number of aboriginal players in the NHL proving to our kids that they can be here living their dream if it’s what they want,” said former NHL tough-guy Gino Odjick, Mohawk. “With the number of our people who play hockey, there should be even more of us in the NHL, that’s why every one of us who has played at that level continue to work to make the road easier for the next generation to get there.”