Toronto’s pro hockey franchises stage Indigenous Celebration games

Monday, January 15th, 2024 12:28pm


Image Caption

Victor Linklater, Nishnawbe Aski Nation deputy grand chief. Photo by Sam Laskaris


“I think recognition is very important. And for a storied franchise like the Leafs, there’s no better way to get the message out. It’s good to be part of a special night.” —former NHLer Ted Nolan of Garden River First Nation
By Sam Laskaris
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Victor Linklater is pleased the Toronto Maple Leafs franchise is doing its bit towards advancing reconciliation.

The National Hockey League team staged its second annual Indigenous Celebration Game on Jan. 13.

“As we move towards reconciliation, we’d like to see more events like this across the country,” said Linklater, the deputy grand chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, a political organization that represents 51 First Nations in northern Ontario.

“Kudos to the Maple Leafs for putting it on again.”

Linklater, a member of Taykwa Tagamou Nation, who lives in Cochrane, Ont., was one of several chiefs from across Ontario invited to the Leafs’ contest.

“I think it means a lot to our people, just to finally get recognized,” he said. “We are the first peoples of Canada and we all signed treaties and I think it’s a big step.”

Linklater believes having a pro sports franchise honour Indigenous people is a positive step towards reconciliation.

“I think it highlights it because there are a lot of corporations here who really believe in economic reconciliation,” he said. “Our treaties were signed in the spirit of friendship. It was very one-sided, so we’d like to see the scales even out. This country has become very rich. This province has become very rich with our lands and our resources. So, this is a step forward. We’ve got to start somewhere.”

The Maple Leafs’ American Hockey League affiliate Toronto Marlies staged its own Indigenous Celebration Game one night earlier on Jan. 12.

Former NHL player and coach Ted Nolan, a member of Garden River First Nation in northern Ontario, was among those invited to Saturday’s Leafs contest.

The hometown Leafs were unable to register a victory in the match as they blew a 3-0 advantage and were beat 5-3 by the Colorado Avalanche.

Nolan, who was the NHL’s coach of the year during the 1996-97 season when he was the bench boss of the Buffalo Sabres, was pleased to see the Toronto club stage another Indigenous Celebration Game.

“I think recognition is very important,” he said. “And for a storied franchise like the Leafs, there’s no better way to get the message out. It’s good to be part of a special night.”

Like Linklater, Nolan said honouring Indigenous peoples at sports events is a positive step towards reconciliation.

“It’s a part,” he said. “Whether it’s a small part or whether it’s a big part, as long as people are recognizing it and doing it and trying to make up for past wrongs, going forward I think it’s a great thing.”

Nolan said hockey is an integral pastime of Indigenous people.

“Hockey has been a big, big part of our communities forever,” he said. “You look at the success of the tournament called the Little NHL. We’re celebrating our 50th year this year. And I was very fortunate to be one of the first players to play in the tournament back in the day.”

Nolan said the fact the Leafs are recognizing Indigenous people is indeed a big deal.

“The Toronto Maple Leafs, as we know, they’re almost Canada’s team,” he said. “I didn’t realize how many Leafs’ fans we have across our nation.”

Mark Fraser, a former NHLer who is Black and now has an equity, diversion and inclusion advocacy role with the Maple Leafs, stressed the importance of the franchise hosting an Indigenous Celebration Game again this year.

“The team needs to do this,” he said. “The majority of us represented in this organization and in this game, we’re proud Canadians, we’re proud residents of Toronto, but we’re all settlers or we’re descendants of settlers. This is a community that not only needs to be acknowledged for their experience, but celebrated as well (for) their resilience, their culture, their traditions and their community.”

Fraser appeared in a total of 224 NHL contests. He suited up for the Maple Leafs in 68 matches. He also had stints with the New Jersey Devils and Edmonton Oilers.

“Part of reconciliation and, certainly, part of the calls to action are to celebrate and to celebrate their community and their artists and to provide opportunity,” Fraser said, referring to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 Calls to Action. “And that’s what we’re doing here.”

Fraser realizes the clout the Maple Leafs carry when they send out a message.

“This is our opportunity at large to use our voice and to use our platform to say there is a community here that has often been overlooked and needs to be celebrated,” he said. “But we also need to be aware of their experiences.”

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