You’d be forgiven if you at first didn’t notice the unassuming, six-foot-three figure in a black fedora interacting with the nearly 30 Kahnawa’kehró:non from Kahnawake Minor Hockey Association (KMHA) invited to the Bell Centre last weekend for Indigenous Appreciation Night.
“Did you see Carey Price?!” asked seven-year-old Briella Kirby.
“We did! And even asked questions,” said eight-year-old Brylynn Delisle.
“I asked him, what does he catch when he goes fishing?” said seven-year-old Dane McComber proudly. “He said it’s salmon!”
The smiles on the faces of Kahnawake’s hockey players lit up the whole arena last Saturday, for a special night aimed at recognizing and honouring Indigenous participation in the sport. This year marked the second iteration of the annual event – last year’s game was played against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Though this year’s game was less of a marquee matchup than last year’s, and though the Columbus Blue Jackets currently sit at the very bottom of the NHL standings in terms of points, the game still made for a gripping watch, with the Habs winning 8-2.
“It was awesome, it was really exciting, especially because they won,” said Shannon Cross, who owns Cross Beads Designs. She was asked to be involved with this year’s Indigenous Appreciation Night by making pins for the Canadiens’ staff and players. Her team, which is made up of Christine Grand-Louis and Kyle Phillips, made 45 unique pins for the night.
“We wanted each player to have their own pin with a design of their own,” she said, noting each pin is unique. The pins took her, Phillips, and Grand-Louis about 40 cumulative hours to make. “It means a lot to be recognized. To see all these players that we’ve been watching since I’ve been a kid wearing our work is a huge deal.”
Cross and her team were initially meant to hand out the pins themselves to the team and staff the day before the event, but unfortunately the meeting was canceled at the last minute, due to an apparent mandatory day off for the team.
“We were extremely disappointed about that,” she explained. “We were hoping we were going to meet them, but hopefully one day!”
The starting lineup was announced in Cree by Dre Bosum, a child from the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, and the crowd was treated to a performance by powwow drum group Black Bear during the first intermission. The Canadiens also held a hockey clinic on the Bell Centre ice for the members of KMHA, hosted by former player Gaston Gingras, and assisted by Olympic gold medal hockey player Emily Pfalzer Matheson and Codie Cross, who played for Northeastern and whose family is Metis.
“I learned a lot,” said McComber, who noted he particularly enjoyed hearing some goaltending tips from Price, who is a member of the Ulkatcho First Nation. “I asked him what it feels like to be a goalie and he said it feels really good.”
As part of the night, the Montreal Canadiens also made a $30,000 donation to Kahnawake’s upcoming multi-purpose building, which will house the Kanien’kehá:ka Onkwawén:na Raotitióhkwa Language and Cultural Centre (KOR), Turtle Island Theatre, and Kahnawake Tourism, amongst other functions. Representatives from those involved in the building’s planning were invited to sit in a private box for the game.
“It fills me with pride and happiness for my colleagues to see the name of our organization in the news,” said KOR’s artistic director, Marion Delaronde. “This donation brings us closer to the finish line, and we cannot leave out the value of the limelight they gave to us and others on Indigenous Celebration night.”
A particularly poignant moment came when a logo designed by multidisciplinary artist Meky Ottawa, from the Atikamekw community of Manawan, was shown before the game. The logo, inspired by Atikamekw art created with birch bark and traditional scraping techniques, was printed on warmup jerseys of the entire team.
“The night was full of amazing moments, like meeting Mekky Ottawa and seeing her family light up when her artwork was projected on the ice, meeting Carey Price, such amazing skill and yet so down to earth and calm,” Delaronde said. “Being there with people from Kahnawake who’ve been working so hard to make this happen all together filled me with layers of gratitude.”
The warmup jerseys and players’ name plates are currently being auctioned off in support of the Regroupement des centres d’amitie autochtones du Quebec’s educational success program, which promotes academic success of Indigenous youth.
A very unique set of national anthems was also sung at the game by singer-songwriter Pakesso Mukash, who is from the Whapmagoostui First Nation and who is also a member of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee. Mukash is trilingual, and also works as an interpreter in his language for the court system. This was the second year that Mukash was invited to sing for Indigenous Appreciation night.
“This year, I was ready to greet 21,000 people,” Mukash said. He noted the uniqueness of singing the anthem in Cree. “I’ll tell you one thing, I won’t have been the best, but I’ll have been the first!”
Mukash said he hopes that the night signals a shift in the hockey world’s support of Indigenous players and fans.
“This is the Montreal Canadiens,” Mukash said, pointing behind him towards the arena behind his box erupting in cheers. “We’re a 100-year storied franchise, opening the door and recognizing Indigenous people. I just hope somebody out there thought, if he can do it, I can do it.”