Why hockey is more than a pastime for Enoch Cree Nation

Check out the tease for Rogers Hometown Hockey featuring the Enoch Cree Nation

For those who’ve been around long enough to know, the Old Barn is more than a rink. It’s more than the walls that enclose it or the roof that protects it. It is, rather, the holder of decades upon decades of memories.

“You always have so many stories of what you did there,” says Robert Cardinal of why the recreation centre affectionately known as the Old Barn means so much to the Enoch Cree Nation, a First Nation in central Alberta that Rogers Hometown Hockey will celebrate this weekend. “Where you fell down and cut your eye open. Where you scored your first goal. Your first taste of fries and gravy. Everything in that rink just has a memory…. It’s a place that just develops those memories and keeps it going within the community.”

It’s also, at long last, the home of Enoch’s own minor-hockey organization, the Enoch Cree Hockey Association, for which Cardinal serves as the bantam director. After going more than three decades without one, Enoch has watched the ECHA proudly restore the community’s yearning for the game they love.

The revived minor-hockey outfit suited up four teams and 92 players in its first year back in 2015–16. Those numbers jumped to eight teams and 148 players in Year 2, and as high as 10 teams and 176 players in 2017–18.

“That year, we actually had two teams win the minor-hockey league championships,” says ECHA president Jordan Courtepatte. “We were the first all-Indigenous team to win the tournament.”

Four Enoch teams went on to win city championships that season, becoming the first all-Indigenous teams to accomplish that feat as well.

Though the organization scaled back slightly this year — down to eight teams and 158 players — that hasn’t slowed the pace of their on-ice success.

And yet, as Courtepatte tells it, winning titles was never the primary goal guiding the effort to relaunch the ECHA. It was simply about giving the community back something they’d long since lost.

Celebrate Our Community. Celebrate Our Game.

Enoch once had another minor-hockey association to call its own, and a noteworthy place among the Albertan hockey world in general.

“Grant Fuhr used to play out in Enoch,” Cardinal says of the Hockey Hall of Famer and former Edmonton Oiler. “We have old pictures of him playing out here — he came out and he hung out in the community…. We were really doing some big things back then.”

But a lack of volunteers caused the original association to fizzle out in the ’80s, says ECHA treasurer Chase Morin. That meant seeing the Old Barn booked up primarily by outside organizations. And it meant leaving plenty of kids in the community with few, if any, options to play the game, with other potential possibilities located in rinks reached only by lengthy drives.

“Everybody loves hockey in Enoch,” Courtepatte says. “All the kids wanted to play hockey. For a lot of them, it was unfortunate that they didn’t have the opportunity to play because of family dynamics — they had no way to get to the rink. Every year, they’d come in wanting to play hockey and we’d fund them, but they had no way to go…. So that bothered me quite a bit.”

Years of seeing Enoch’s youth barred from pursuing their passion spurred Courtepatte, who’s also Enoch’s Youth Director, and the rest of the ECHA’s early board of directors to undertake the not-insignificant amount of work required to bring minor hockey back to Enoch. The fruits of their labour have since been easy to spot.

“They say it takes a community to raise a kid and that’s kind of what’s happening here with hockey — it’s bringing our community together,” Courtepatte says. “A lot of the kids are getting this opportunity to play and hopefully it’s helping change their lives around, too.”

Courtepatte was first taught the great force hockey can exert on a kid’s life during his own childhood in the early ’90s, and used that as fuel in the effort to bring back the ECHA.

“What drove me was my own upbringing — it’s similar to a lot of these kids,” Courtepatte says. “To be honest with you, my dad was in and out of jail most of my life. And all my uncles, some of them in and out of gangs. And I was kind of going down the wrong path, I guess. I was getting in trouble as a kid and my perspective on things was different, as my role models weren’t the best. I was about 10 years old when I started playing hockey, and I got pretty good at it. It took a couple years to get to the top level, and my peers changed, the people I hung around with were different, and my goals definitely changed. I wanted to play hockey at all times.

“I had a good mother, she raised me and my brother by herself — she set some boundaries and some rules, where I had to go to school and stay out of trouble to play, and that kept me in line, for the most part.”

Hockey eventually carried Courtepatte out to the BCHL — through Burnaby, Alberni Valley and Surrey — before brief stints in college hockey and the pro level. When all was said and done, he returned home to Enoch to run hockey camps and help out with youth programming.

“How it helped me is how I’m hoping it’ll help these kids. Whether it’s one, two, 10, however many we get through to…. Because statistics don’t lie, and in Aboriginal communities there are a lot more barriers and challenges that a lot of the kids go through. And some of them, they don’t make it through probably, without the support. The way I grew up, I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t play hockey.”

Others in the community have also taken note of the ECHA’s undeniable impact.

“I’ve seen it personally turn around some of the older kids,” says Morin. “The ones that are going in that bantam and midget age, they were kind of steering themselves on the wrong path. And hockey’s kind of put them right back in the right direction.”

The Old Barn, which Morin says is now dedicated to the ECHA roughly 80 per cent of the time, has played a key role.

“The community surrounds the ice rink, and it’s a central hub, if you look at it on the map,” Cardinal says. “It’s closest to the main road, it’s closest to our schools, everything like that. So it also is like a life raft for the kids. And I think that’s one of the biggest attributes we have besides a lot of other communities, is that it’s so close.… That really is a difference maker in how they’re going to grow.”

Courtepatte remembers some tougher moments growing up in the sport himself, enduring racism while playing outside of Enoch.

“I was mostly the only Native kid on my team,” he says. “I was told, ‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know Natives can’t play hockey?’ My first tryouts, I was about 10 or 11, and I had words with this kid — eventually I got kicked off the ice. I left pretty hurt. I started thinking, ‘How many Native players are there in the NHL?’”

It’s a question that seems easier to answer in the present, Courtepatte says. Current Enoch Councillor Shane Peacock provided an early role model, getting drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the third round of the 1991 NHL draft before enjoying a long career in Germany. But since then, the Indigenous presence in the game has only continued to grow. That shift is sure to play a key role in helping encourage more kids like the ECHA’s own to participate in the sport.

“You see somebody who’s the same as you, grew up in the same conditions, and they’re making it and they’re doing it — that gives you hope,” says Courtepatte.

Enoch Cree Hockey Association novice Edmonton city champions
Shortly after Enoch Cree Nation revived its minor-hockey association, its novice team won the Edmonton city championship. (Enoch Cree Hockey Association)

Enoch’s been able to get an up-close look at a couple of the game’s most promising Indigenous stars. Ethan Bear, the pride of the Ochapowace First Nation, is a top defensive prospect in the nearby Edmonton Oilers organization, currently dominating in AHL Bakersfield. And Micheal Ferland — the most prominent Cree player in the sport — spent the first four seasons of his career as a fan favourite with the nearby Calgary Flames before an off-season trade sent him to Carolina last summer.

Both relish the role they play in inspiring youth around the country.

“To be a role model for my own culture and my own people, it truly is an honour,” says Bear. “I try to work my hardest every day and just try to lead by example, by just hard work and commitment. To know there’s kids looking up to me and there’s people cheering hard for me, it’s motivating for myself as well.”

“It’s an unbelievable feeling to go back home,” says Ferland. “It’s a different type of relationship that I have with all my Native friends than I do with my hockey buddies. Even just playing against other Native hockey players in the NHL, you just kind of have a bond already. We don’t even know each other but it’s … it’s hard to explain. It means a lot to me to be able to play for my people.”

The impact of the ECHA’s arrival in Enoch brought back something else that was lost, too, says Cardinal — a renewed connection between the community and its history.

“For years, we’ve always done well at team sports. It’s innate in a lot of Native cultures to be good at a lot of sports, because we did a lot of hunting, a lot of gathering, a lot of things together,” he says. “This is just one way to be able to gain that cultural aspect back to the community, to the kids, and kind of connect them with their roots.”

It isn’t simply the team success — the championships that have already come in the first few years — that hearkens back to these cultural memories, but also the very makeup of each team and how it functions.

“If you look at team dynamics, anybody can see who the best player is. You’re on the ice, you can see who’s faster, who has the best shot, who’s bigger, who’s stronger. And it starts to weed out who the top line is, the second line,” Cardinal explains.

“But some of the other things that happen is you start thinking about who’s smarter with the puck. Who’s thinking two plays ahead. Who’s committed. Who’s feared. Who can be relied on. And those intangible things are the stuff that we’re talking about. 

“I don’t want to go way, way back, but you delve into the cultural side and we can say hunting parties, we can say doing sun dances and other cultural events — who has the knowledge, who has the gifts to be able to do these things.… It brings back lost memories to our kids, whether they can see it or not.”

Even for those who don’t take the ice but instead watch from the stands, the return of minor hockey to Enoch has been just as much of a game changer.

“In any community, you have people who maybe don’t get along or bicker amongst themselves, especially in smaller communities. But I found, with hockey, when we’re playing, it kind of united everybody to be on the same page, all for the same cause, for our youth and our kids. All striving for the same thing, to become a good team and play well to represent the community,” Courtepatte says. “I think that’s one of the bigger parts that you don’t actually really see until you look deeper into it — the main thing is the kids playing, for sure. But when you look at the larger scale of things, it does bring the community together.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.