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Miles Morrisseau
Special to Indian Country Today

When the flame is lit on the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing, another round in one of the greatest rivalries in the history of sports will begin. There has never been a competition dominated by two countries in all of winter sports quite like women’s hockey.

Since it was introduced as an Olympic sport in 1998, only “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “O Canada” has played after the gold medal was handed out. Without National Hockey League players represented in the men’s competition at this year’s games, there will be an even greater spotlight directed at the women’s game.

This year, there are three Indigenous women on the two teams, and when the gold medal is handed out on Feb. 16, it may be one of them who made the play that determined who would be singing the national anthem and who would be singing the blues.

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Canada holds the edge, with four of the last six Olympic gold medals, but Team USA is the defending Olympic champion. Both teams are built for battle with a mixture of seasoned veterans and youngbloods who have proven they deserve to be there but have yet to compete under the worldwide gaze of Olympic competition.

Abby Roque (pronounced rock) is the breakaway star of the U.S. team. The Ojibway from Wahnapitae First Nation grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and is one of four athletes featured on the Olympic preview cover of Sports Illustrated. Her achievement as the first Indigenous player on Team USA is being acknowledged, but also brings expectations along with the attention.

She’ll be facing two Indigenous women on the Canadian team – Jocelyne Larocque (pronounced luh-rock) and Jamie Lee Rattray, (pronounced rah-tray) both of the Métis Nation.

All three players bring an edge to their game that one puck head in Canada called “truculence,” which is defined as “aggressively self-assertive.” They have all broken the glass ceiling and played tough against young men who were allowed to hit them back. They have all led their universities to national championships and now carry the hopes of their countries to achieve the highest honor in their game – Olympic gold.

They’ll face off in their undisputed rivalry on Feb. 7, when Canada and the U.S. meet in the pre-medal round. It is that competition that Larocque anticipates.

“Any time we get to play the U.S., even if it's an exhibition rivalry game, or if it's an Olympic gold medal game or World Championship gold medal game, it honestly doesn't even matter - just any time we get to play against each other … it’s incredibly high-paced,” she told Indian Country Today. “There's so much passion for our countries. It's just, like, intense…. My favorite part of playing is playing in those games. So I feel incredibly honored to be able to be a part of those games because they're an insane amount of fun.”

Canada has one other Indigenous athlete at the games. Liam Gill, 18, from the Liidlii Kue First Nation, will be competing in snowboarding.

Abby Roque: Getting physical

Roque was born for this moment. She grew up immersed in the game as her father Jim had a nearly 40-year career as a NCAA hockey coach and is now a pro scout with the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League. Her backyard was an ice rink from the time she could walk.

Soon, she was playing the game she grew up to love and was competing against the best players male and female. When she got to the high school level, she was determined to play in the boys division where hitting was allowed.

“My teammates took a little too good care of me the first two years, going after anybody who hit me,” Roque told Sports Illustrated. “And then by my senior year, I think they gave up on me. They were like, ‘You're tougher than a lot of us,’ because I ended up being the person either starting something or going to defend the freshman boys.”

United States' Abby Roque (11), Ojibway, celebrates her goal during the third period of a rivalry series women's hockey game against Canada in Hartford, Conn., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Roque’s gritty style, size and speed are what she will be bringing to Team USA. She is 5-foot-7 and 180 pounds, and she is known to swing the biggest, longest stick in the women’s game. She finished her NCAA career with 170 points and 139 minutes in the penalty box.

Make no mistake, the game is physical. It is a game of speed and skill, but is also about imposing your will upon the other team. Players attack and defend with sticks of graphite, fiberglass and wood, with razor-sharp blades on their feet and body armor made from Kevlar. Yes, hitting is illegal but that doesn’t mean that players won’t make a hit and pay their two minutes in the penalty box.

Roque made her national team debut at the appropriately named Rivalry Series. The cross-border series between Canada and the U.S. has essentially served as a tune-up for the main attraction – the Olympics competition.

Jocelyne Larocque: ‘Tough as shoe leather’

North of the border, Larocque continues her historical career relatively unnoticed.

“Jocelyne Larocque is the most underrated hockey player in Canada, male or female,” said Scott Taylor, editor of Game On who co-wrote the book,” A History of Excellence – The Untold Story of Manitoba’s Indigenous Sport,” and has covered several Olympics.

Larocque is listed at 5-foot-6 and 139 pounds on the Elite Prospects website, but Taylor says she plays bigger.

“She's not known for being a tough hockey player, but she's as tough as shoe leather,” he said. “She can take a hit. She can give a hit. But I go back to the play that got Canada that overtime, win last month, where she took out two players, got the puck, made the pass. Yeah, I think more than anything else is her intelligence.”

Canadian hockey player Jocelyne Larocque, Métis, shown here with her gold and silver medals from the 2014 and 2018 Olympics, will be going for the gold this year at the Beijing games starting Feb. 4, 2022. Larocque is one of three Indigenous women playing for the U.S. and Canada. Larocque and another First Nation player, Jamie Lee Rattray, also Métis, will face athlete Abby Roque, Ojibway from Wahnapitae First Nation, who is a member of the U.S. team. (Photo by Candice Ward, courtesy of Hockey Canada Images)

She grew up in Ste. Anne, Manitoba, loving hockey and, much like Roque, playing against the boys and dreaming of the NHL. Ste. Anne is a one of the few dozen communities referred to as the parishes that make up the Métis settlements in southern Manitoba along with the main Red River Settlement.

Larocque is one of Canada’s most decorated international athletes, winning four silver medals with Team Canada at International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Championship and two gold including the recent 2021 tournament.

This will be her third Olympics. She played in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, when Canada defeated the U.S. to win gold. She competed again in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, where Canada lost to the U.S. to take silver.

It is that silver medal from the 2018 Olympics that is perhaps most remembered. After Canada’s loss to the U.S., Larocque removed her silver medal and held it in her hands with her head down. She was immediately vilified on social media as well as mainstream Canadian media as a sore loser.

“If I could do it differently, I wouldn't do that. But I'm also somebody that believes that through our entire lives, we have to live and learn,” she told Indian Country Today by phone from Team Canada’s practice facility in Calgary, Alberta. “So, you know, if I could redo it, I definitely would. But you can’t in life; all that you can do is learn and be better.”

She wears that silver with pride these days.

“I'm incredibly proud of that silver medal because I know how much I worked for it. I know how much my teammates worked for it,” she said. “I mean, in an Olympic year, we're together for seven months, every day. So you know, those teammates become your family. And, you know, in that moment, I felt I most definitely didn't feel shame. I just felt like, honestly, just so much sadness. That's just, like being so close and you're just sad. But honestly, I don't feel sad anymore.”

Jamie Lee Rattray: ‘An energy player’

Canada has a second Indigenous player making her Olympic debut in Beijing. Rattray grew up in Kanata just outside the Canadian capital of Ottawa. Listed as 5-foot-6 and 172 pounds, she also plays a physical game.

“A hard-nosed player,” Taylor said. “I would say the equivalent of a power forward. Good in front of the net. Takes a lickin’ and keeps on ticking … She will be an energy player. She's really good. She's really fast.”

Like her teammate, Rattray had a stellar NCAA career that culminated in her senior year, when she led Clarkson University to its first national championship in 2014 and was chosen as the tournament’s most outstanding player. She also led the nation in scoring with 66 points in 41 games and was given the Patty Kazmaier Award as best player in NCAA women’s hockey.

Canada's Jamie Lee Rattray (47), Métis, looks to shoot on U.S. goaltender Maddie Rooney (35) during the third period of a Rivalry Series hockey game in Ottawa, Ontario, on Nov. 23, 2021. Rattray is one of three Indigenous women playing for the U.S. and Canada in the Beijing Winter Olympics, which open Feb. 4, 2022. Rattray and another First Nation player, Jocelyne Larocque, also Métis, will face athlete Abby Roque, Ojibway from Wahnapitae First Nation, who is a member of the U.S. team. (Photo by Justin Tang/The Canadian Press via AP)

Rattray goes by the nickname JLR, as well as Ratty.

“As an athlete, all you're trying to do is take it one day at a time,” she told Sportsnet 590 the Fan recently. “And I think that's the biggest thing I've learned over my career. And you know, as you get older, you can't control a lot of it. All you can control is your attitude and your effort. And I think that's one thing that our team is very good at.

“I'm looking forward to this next little bit with this team, “ she said. “Everyone should be excited for the Olympics. I think it's one of the biggest, coolest things in the world to watch.”

Eyes on the gold

The three hockey players and the Canadian snowboarder will join at least one other Indigenous athlete at the Winter Olympics, which kick off in Beijing with opening ceremonies on Feb. 4 and will run through Feb. 20.

Inuk athlete Ukaleq Slettamark of Greenland is also representing the Danish commonwealth in the biathlon, which involves cross-country skiing and rifle-shooting.

The uniform includes a design reflective of Inuit tattoo lines, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) reported. The Danish commonwealth includes Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands.

The women's hockey teams will be on the ice even before the opening ceremonies begin, however. The Canada team is out first, with a game set for Feb. 2 against Switzerland. Canada will then play Finland on Feb. 4 and Russia on Feb. 6 before facing the U.S. on Feb. 7.

The U.S. team will begin with a game against Finland on Feb. 3, then face Russia on Feb. 5 and Switzerland on Feb. 6 before taking on the Canadians. 

Both teams are ready, said Taylor, who spoke recently with Larocque and with Team Canada’s goalie, Kristen Campell.

“They both said the same thing,” Taylor said. “The rest of the world is getting better, but sometimes it's difficult to really get up. And since it's the Olympics, it'll be different than a world championship. They'll get up and beat those teams, I think, quite handily.

“But all they are is a preliminary for the United States game. I mean, it's just the United States and Canada, and every game is intense.”

ICT writer Dan Ninham contributed to this report.

Update: This story has been updated to include additional Indigenous athletes who will be participating in the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Liam Gill, 18, from the Liidlii Kue First Nation, was added to the roster for Canada for snowboarding. Inuk athlete Ukaleq Slettamark of Greenland is representing the Danish commonwealth in the biathlon.

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