Four Indigenous players have a chance to hoist the coveted Stanley Cup this year.
Zach Whitecloud, Dakota Sioux, of the Vegas Golden Knights, and Brandon Montour, Mohawk, of the Florida Panthers, will join Métis players Connor Dewar and Calen Addison with the Minnesota Wild in the National Hockey League playoffs beginning Monday, April 17.
“Brandon is an offensive guy who skates very well and has had a fantastic season,” former NHL player and APTN analyst John Chabot, Kitigan Zibi Algonquin, told ICT. “People were waiting for the promise of what he could become and he's become that this year. A point guy, a top-four guy, and he’s eating up a lot of minutes.”
The four are among 10 Indigenous players in the National Hockey League, and, if they make it all the way, would be the first in five years to win the Stanley Cup.
The Florida Panthers were going in the wrong direction this season when Montour turned their fortunes around in a matter of minutes.
With eight games left in the season, they were fighting for one of the last two wild card spots in the East and had lost four games in a row. With a minute left in the March 29 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montour set up player Sam Reinhart to send the game into overtime.
At 1:41 in the overtime period, Montour scored the game-winner and the Panthers set off on a six-game winning streak that put them right back into the 2023 playoffs.
The points put him at the top of two impressive records: he is the highest scoring defenseman in Panthers history and has the most game-winning goals on the team this season.
Montour scored points in every game during that run, including two assists in a 3-2 win over his former team, the Buffalo Sabres, and four points — one goal and three assists — in a 7-2 rout of the Ottawa Senators. The Panthers lost 2-1 to the Leafs in the penultimate game of the season, but still earned a point. That was enough to punch their ticket to the end of the season dance. The goal that got the team into the playoffs was scored by Montour.
Over in the West, the Golden Knights have established themselves as a favorite to bring the cup home to Sin City. They have met expectations so far, finishing at the top of the Western Conference. The franchise was launched in 2017 and is the second youngest in the league. The team benefitted from a very favorable entrance draft and has been competitive since inception.
The Las Vegas team drafted Whitecloud in 2017 out of the Bemidji State University hockey program. He got one game in during the 2017-2018 season and played most of the 2018 season with the American Hockey League-affiliate Chicago Wolves before joining the big leagues full time in 2019.
The defenseman finished the season strong with three points in the last five games and nearly 22 minutes of ice time.
“When you look at Zach, his game is completely different,” Chabot said, comparing him to Montour’s offensive style. “He’s a physical guy. He brings the same amount of attention to a different part of the game. And he gets the puck out of the zone, he knocks guys down, he's in your face. They both play the style of hockey that their teams need them to play.”
The Knights will be taking on the Winnipeg Jets in the first round, so it’s safe to say that family and friends from the region will be in the city to support the local hero, where the land acknowledgement includes the Dakota Nation.
The Wild are taking on last year’s champs, and the Avalanche are still a championship-caliber team. Connor Dewar from the Pas, Manitoba, was drafted by Minnesota and played in the AHL-affiliate Iowa Wild for the most part since 2019. The left shooting center got in 35 games last year and played his first full season this year.
“You look at Connor, and talking to [Minnesota General Manager] Billy Guerin last year about him, and he really likes his compete level, he’s got some good skills,” Chabot said. “They just liked the fact that he's willing to do things that maybe other players don't, where he gets involved in every area the ice in front of the net and in the corners, and he's willing to dig pucks out.”
Calen Addison has been with the Minnesota Wild since 2020. The defenseman spent time going back and forth from the NHL and the AHL, but got in 65 games this year and racked up nearly 30 points.
“He sees the ice well, he moves the puck well, but his strength has been what's held him back,” — and this is what's going to probably happen in the playoffs, he might get shuttled out into a 7th D situation,” Chabot says regarding the increased physical demands of the playoffs.
“Getting your loose pucks in different ways and being able to withhold a bottom-six forward who's coming down on you hard – how-do-you-hold-them-off-type stuff,” Chabot said. “And he's kind of learning that on the fly here. As he gets stronger and as he's able to implement that into his game, he'll get more ice time.”
More work to be done
There are still few Indigenous hockey players in the NHL, however, and more work is needed to bring Indigenous players to the game.
According to the Hockey Indigenous website, there are only 10 indigenous hockey players in the league; six are defensemen, three are forwards and the one goalie is the Montreal Canadiens’ Carey Price, Ulkatcho First Nation.
The Vancouver Canucks have three Indigenous players on their roster, all of whom are from the Cree Nation: defensive player Ethan Bear, Ochapowace Cree Nation; fForward Michael Ferland, Swan River, Manitoba; and the team’s latest draft pick, Brady Keeper, from the Pimicikamak Cree Nation, Cross Lake, Manitoba.
Rounding out the ten are defensive player Travis Hamonic, Métis, of the Ottawa Senators, and forward T.J. Oshie, Ojibwe, of the Washington Capitals. Oshie is the last Indigenous player to win the NHL’s top prize, raising Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2018.
The NHL has made numerous steps to acknowledge the Indigenous history of Canada, and all Canadian teams host Indigenous celebration nights as well as start each game with land acknowledgements.
But it’s not enough, Chabot said.
“I think that what the teams are doing is great but there has to be a next step,” he said. “Land acknowledgments are great. Don't get me wrong, but now that he's acknowledged the fact that it is on unceded Indigenous territory, what's your next step?”
He continued, “Once it becomes acknowledged and we move forward to the point where it just becomes the norm, that we are part of this, the fabric and the first peoples of this country, where it becomes an accepted part of our culture, then we'll have become equal,” Chabot said. “But until that point, I think there's always going to always need to have work done and the conversation has to continue.”
This story was originally published by ICT and is republished with permission. ICT is an independent, nonprofit news enterprise. To view the original story, visit https://ictnews.org/news/four-indigenous-players-vie-for-the-stanley-cup.