Q&A: Ryan Francis on Willie O’Ree Award, Mario Lemieux and Indigenous girls hockey

Ryan Francis. (Photo courtesy Ryan Francis)

As one of three finalists for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, Ryan Francis is being recognized for using hockey to change lives. But it was an impromptu letter after reading a library book that changed Francis’ life via the game of hockey.

Francis grew up in Cole Harbour only two streets away from Sidney Crosby. He’s a member of Acadia First Nation; his father is Mi’kmaw, an Indigenous community that has a rich hockey history. Since Francis grew up off reserve, he’s still learning about his identity and heritage today, and using hockey to help discover it.

After going to school for sports management and doing his Masters on Indigenous sport and the long-term athlete development model, he realized he wanted to do something that brought all of his interests together. Which is why he helped launch Indigenous Girls Hockey Program Nova Scotia, which encourages young Mi’kmaq girls to play hockey and break down the barriers that have commonly kept girls from playing the game.

In the past two years, the program has had 190 participants from three different Mi’kmaq communities. When he is not working full-time for the Government of Nova Scotia in the community, culture, and heritage department, this program is his passion project.

His sense of community can be traced back to 2002, when he read the book ‘Mario Lemieux’ by Richard J. Brenner, in Grade One. At the end the book reads, “if you want to write a letter to Mario, here’s an address.” So, Francis wrote a letter that opened with: “You’re my second favourite player after Saku Koivu” and described how much he likes Nintendo.

He’d ask his mom every day if Lemieux wrote back, so finally, she photocopied the letter and sent it to Mark Shuttleworth, who was the Director of Operations for Lemieux Hockey Development, and asked him to help get a response from Lemieux. 

Shuttleworth responded with a letter that still resonates with Francis to this day, writing: Be a quality person like the role models who inspire you.” Francis still takes the advice to heart to this day. Lemieux also replied a year later and included a signed photo, and told Francis to make school the priority, not Nintendo. Shuttleworth now works for the Penguins as the Director, Adult Leagues, Camps and Tournaments for UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex and has kept in touch with Francis over the years.

The other worthy nominees along with Francis are Noel Acton of Baltimore, who is the co-founder of The Tender Bridge and Banners Hockey and Meredith Lang of Minneapolis, who is the co-founder of Hockey Ninas and MN Unbounded. You can vote for the award here.

As Francis awaits the votes to come in, I caught up with him about his nomination, Lemieux’s legacy, and the importance of hockey to young Indigenous women.

Sportsnet: How does it feel being recognized by the NHL as a Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award nominee?

Ryan Francis: It’s certainly a bit surreal. When you have your name in the same sentence as Mr. O’Ree, it feels very undeserving knowing the impact that he has had on the game on a global scale. But it’s also very humbling and very appreciative just knowing that some of the work that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of has had a positive impact in our communities.

What impact did Acadia First Nation and the Indigenous communities in hockey have on you?

RF: Both of my parents were really vital in helping me understand my identity. Obviously, growing up in Cole Harbor off reserve, my parents are so intentional in allowing me to have opportunities and participate in various activities through Acadia First Nation and also our Native Friendship Center here in Halifax. I always felt the support of Acadia First Nation, for example, minor hockey often has jersey sponsors. And so often Acadia First Nation would be on the back of my jersey as my jersey sponsor. And that’s something that I wore really proudly as other teammates had either local businesses or family businesses. I always had Acadia First Nation. And so that support and that connection to Acadia First Nation was always there. And in many ways, hockey was the connection. As I got older in my grade twelve year, I had the opportunity to represent Team Atlantic at the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships as well. And it was really at that moment in my life and my career, I really started to even in more ways understand my culture and the importance of my identity and really start in a way to discover and learn more about my history.

Francis pictured with an Acadia First Nation sponsor on the bottom of his jersey. (Courtesy Ryan Francis)

How did you learn about the great hockey history within the Indigenous community?

RF: I grew up idolizing Chad Denny from Eskasoni First Nation. He played in the QMJHL and was drafted, actually, by the Atlanta Thrashers. I always was directed towards Indigenous hockey players and coaches. I always found myself cheering for Ted Nolan and learning more about his story, and Jordan Tootoo, and so I always felt a close connection, or would consider them to be my favourite players and coaches growing up. It really wasn’t actually until fairly recently now more in my professional career, I started to learn and understand the origins of hockey and the role that Mi’kmaq people had in what hockey is today. And so, understanding that the Mi’kmaq played a sort of game with a puck-like object and stick-like object, it was really cool. And then even just even further understand their role or our role in the creation of the hockey stick. That’s been sort of new learning for me over the past few years.

How did that impact you in launching the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program in Nova Scotia?

RF: I began working in mainstream sport while I started to think through some of these opportunities of how to create more inclusive opportunities for Indigenous athletes, specifically girls and women in hockey. That personal and professional experience is really valuable in understanding and recognizing the opportunities that I had to bring together partners who may never have come together before and facilitate these conversations and broaden that education for all to understand how we could create something meaningful in collaboration, and with the utmost importance of ensuring that our communities and locations had that ability to contribute to what the program design and implementation needed to be for them. And so, I found myself in a really unique position, being an Indigenous person, working and having experience in mainstream sport, but also having experience as an athlete in the Indigenous sport stream, and bringing those two together the best I could to create something that could be meaningful towards the ultimate goal of Indigenous girls, having the opportunity to experience hockey in the way that they chose to and with their peers towards a sense of belonging.

Francis, first from right, pictured at the beginning of the Indigenous Hockey Program in Nova Scotia. (Courtesy Ryan Francis)

When the program first launched, you got some support from Sidney Crosby’s Foundation. How did it help you achieve the goals that you just spoke of?

RF: I think it’s really exciting because when we first began conversations of what the Indigenous girls hockey program could look like, it was very small. But as we began those discussions and talked through them, there were more and more organizations and people who saw the value and the potential of a program like this, and they wanted to come to the table in any way that they could. Mr. Crosby and his way of business is very subtle but very felt here in the community.

Mr. Crosby contributes to the game in subtle ways, very impactful ways. It was something that the Foundation valued and recognized that they could provide resources and support in this way through equipment. It certainly helped us, I believe, in our first and second year to be able to have contributions from the Sidney Crosby Foundation so that girls could further have opportunities in hockey and we further eliminate barriers like equipment so that they could participate.

You’ve received some support and some inspiration from another all-time Pittsburgh Penguin?

RF: I was always an eager kid to read books about hockey players. That was something that started young in me. I actually remember quite distinctly checking out a book about Mario Lemieux from my elementary school. And I read it quite eagerly. At the end of that book, there was an address that simply said, if you would like to reach out to Mario here is the address. And I think my guess would be that book was fairly outdated in a way. But I took it to my mom and said I would like to write a letter to Mr. Lemieux and let him know because I always loved Mario, obviously one of the greatest players of all-time.

My mom helped me put together a letter and get it mailed off to him. And me being young, not really understanding probably the demands or even timelines of people like Mr. Lemieux, the moment that letter got sent out every day after school, I would come home and ask if Mr. Lemieux got back to me.

After a year of my mom saying no, that a letter hadn’t been received back quite yet, she reached out to somebody within the Pittsburgh Penguins, through someone she found on the website. And that individual ended up being Mark Shuttleworth. She actually had taken a photocopy of my letter that we mailed to Mario Lemieux. She sort of typed that out in the grammar of a six-year-old and just said, look, my son wrote a letter to Mario. I don’t know if there’s a way for it to reach him, but he’s been asking each and every day if there’s a letter waiting back for him.

Mr. Shuttleworth actually wrote a letter on Mr. Lemieux’s behalf and just acknowledged my letter. And then he just concluded that letter with a really powerful note that even as a young child, I recognized it was profound and recognized the importance of it. It was just something that I took with me. And that was as he sort of signed off on his letter, he wrote, ‘always put forth the effort to make your parents, teachers, and those around you proud, not necessarily with dazzling success, but by being a quality person, like the role models that inspire you.’

I’ve always held onto, even from a young age until now, recognizing that ultimately being a good person, however you choose to find that, is more important than any sort of accomplishments or accolades that you may come across. And so that was really cool for me. It’s still something I hold really closely.

Another package arrived after we received that letter from Mr. Shuttleworth and it was a letter from Mr. Lemieux himself, again, apologizing for the delay and recognizing just my letter and the drawings that I had done for him, a really nice letter and an autograph photo that was personalized to me. And those two letters, one from Mr. Lemieux and from Mr. Shuttleworth and that signed letter hung in my childhood bedroom from the moment we got it. It now sits in my home office.

Francis, pictured with his dad. (Courtesy Ryan Francis)

Is it fair to say that those interactions inspired you to go on to do the work that you’re doing now?

RF: Yes. You see the work that Mr. Lemieux has done even beyond the game is something that I really admire. And then also just recognizing, looking back on Mr. Shuttleworth’s words of just ensuring that people aren’t necessarily proud of you because of your accomplishments and accolades that may come, but rather because of the person you are in your character. I think that’s demonstrated in Mr. Lemieux. And those words certainly resonated with me deeply. And it’s something that I think I continuously need to check in on, especially in the work that I do today. And realize that we have to prioritize people and the individuals participating in hockey over the game itself, which I do think hockey can create a culture that protects the game and the integrity of the game over the people actually participating. And so certainly those interactions and those role models for me help me understand the importance of the person and the individual even more than the game itself.

There’s the Crosby’s and Lemieux’s who had an influence on you and are influencers in terms of the sport and people in it, but also there are people like you and the other finalists who are every day making impacts that are just as profound at a different level. If someone’s reading your story, is there anything they can learn from it that they can apply to themselves in terms of how they could influence their community or their sport?

RF: I would say that it’s important to recognize that hockey is simply an activity that isn’t necessarily owned by anyone or anything. We tend to always focus on the structure of hockey and who isn’t a hockey player based on their interaction with the game. But for hockey to be more inclusive and welcoming, the participants themselves need to interact with the activity of hockey in a way that they choose to. And so whatever way that looks like, there’s the opportunity for you to have that impact and have that influence and create those opportunities for your community to interact with the game and grow to love the game in the way that they want to.

I think the structures and the approaches we have taken in sports, specifically in Canada, leads to significant protection of the structure itself. I think for groups to be less protective of a structure or the activity itself and allow people to interact with it in the way that they choose to and want to is really profound and can be powerful towards building those relationships and supporting people, regardless of who they are, through a pathway of hockey.

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