For indigenous players Roddy Ross and Conner Roulette, hockey is more than just a game

By Andy Eide

When goalie Roddy Ross joined the Seattle Thunderbirds last January, he was sporting a nondescript mask. It was painted plain white with no markings other than the manufacturer’s name. After a few successful outings it was clear that Ross, who would eventually get drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers, was going to be the top starter for the Thunderbirds which meant he had the opportunity to paint his mask.

Hockey romanticizes a team above all else mentality. No one player is more important than another and with that, acts of self-expression are limited and often discouraged. One exception is the goalie mask. It’s the only player on the ice who has the chance to show who he is and what’s important to him.

For Ross, the choice of what to have painted on his mask was easy. Along with his name and a Thunderbirds logo, he has feathers prominently displayed on the left side of his mask. The feathers are those that would adorn an indigenous head dress.

It was an important image for Ross, who grew up in Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan as a member of the Canoe Lake Cree Nation.

“It’s a way I can show my culture and it’s something that I’m very proud of,” Ross, 19, says. “I try to show it as much as I can. I know there’s a lot of people back home who like it and they see that I’m not one of those guys who tries to shy away from my culture.”

Seattle goalie Roddy Ross had feathers painted on his mask to honor his Cree heritage. (Brian LIesse)

Hockey is woven into the culture of Canada’s First Nations tribes and for the many kids in those communities who grow up playing and loving the sport, it’s a part of life.

“It’s huge,” Thunderbirds rookie Conner Roulette, who is of Cree and Ojibwe descent, says. “A lot of reserves play it and a lot of reserves give it to the youth. It gets them out of the house and a lot of families play it and there’s always tournaments.”

The few who have made their way to high levels of hockey, including the NHL, hold a high profile among the communities they grew up in. In 1954, Fred Sasakamoose became the first, First Nations player to appear in an NHL game. Sasakamoose, who like Ross is of Cree descent, played 11 games for the Chicago Blackhawks and is considered a legend among Canadian indigenous communities.

Ross grew up rooting for the Montreal Canadiens and goalie Carey Price. Many young Canadian goalies cite Price, who played his junior hockey in Kennewick with the Tri-City Americans, among their favorites as he is one of the NHL’s best. Price holds a special distinction for Ross as a fellow First Nations player and the Canadiens star acknowledged his heritage when he encouraged First Nations youth to be leaders during his 2015 Vezina Award acceptance speech.

Price is an inspiration to young indigenous players like Ross because he comes from a similar background and was able to overcome familiar barriers to reach the pinnacle of hockey.

No matter what your cultural background is, seeing someone come from the same starting point achieve at a high level can pay dividends.

Like Ross, Roulette looks up to First Nations players in the NHL.

“I am good friends with Micheal Ferland of the Vancouver Canucks,” Roulette says. “Growing up knowing that he was indigenous, and he’s a part of the culture. We go to the tournaments, you grow up watching him, idolizing him, and you want to be that indigenous guy that all these kids look up to. There’s always T.J. Oshie, he’s Ojibwe like I am, we come from the same background…the ones that grew up in the same culture and background that made it that far, you look up to.”

Both Ross and Roulette are young, but they are playing hockey at a high level and are the next wave of role models for indigenous youth.

They are already being looked up to by people all over Canada. It’s an extra responsibility for the two as they navigate their way through major junior hockey. While they aren’t household names for the average sports fan in Seattle, back home, they are quickly becoming stars.

“You try to be a professional athlete and you have to make sure you’re setting a good example,” Ross says. “You want to make sure you’re being a good role model. There are always people watching…that means a lot and I think guys make sure they stick to the right path.”

Roulette’s uncle, Ryan Cook, is an educator at Maples Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It’s the school that Roulette attends when he’s not in Seattle playing with the Thunderbirds.

Cook is also a hockey coach and has worked closely with Roulette as his hockey career has blossomed. He says that both he and the rest of the family have talked to the 16-year-old about his new, higher profile.

“There’s a lot of people who have never met him but know who he is and where he plays,” Cook says. “It doesn’t matter where you end up. Even if you don’t end up in the NHL, you’re still going to be a person who made it pretty far in the game. You’re still a person that kids are going to want to meet and want to be with. I don’t know if he fully understands what that responsibility is yet, but he’s a mature person and he is starting to see it.”

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear is one of the more recent Frist Nations players to make it to the NHL and has a connection with Seattle.

Bear played for the Thunderbirds from 2013 through 2017 and was part of the Seattle’s WHL Championship squad in his final season. He holds the Thunderbirds franchise record for goals scored by a defenseman, was named WHL Defenseman of the Year in 2017, and is of Cree descent.

He also has a connection with Roulette.

Edmonton Oilers defenseman Ethan Bear (left) and Seattle rookie Conner Roulette (right) have known each other for years. (Thunderbirds photo)

“When my brother was younger they played on the same team,” Roulette says about Bear. “I was the little water boy, the big fan boy. I played mini sticks with them, filled the water bottles up. Ethan was one of the first guys to text me when I first got drafted here. He’s still close, he still acknowledges me and that’s a great thing.”

The two were reunited recently as the Thunderbirds were in Edmonton and Bear stopped by to see his former junior team.

Bear is where Roulette and Ross want to be, both on the ice and off.

For the past three summers Bear has returned to his Ochapowace reserve in Saskatchewan to hold a hockey clinic for kids. He recruits the core of Seattle’s championship team to join him as coaches, including New York Islanders star Mathew Barzal, and the skills camp has a bigger impact than just hockey.

“What Ethan Bear is doing right now is about as good as it gets when it comes to being that role model and being that face for the younger generation,” Cook says. “Unfortunately, a lot of our communities are faced with a lot of social issues, poverty issues, and a real lack of positive role models. When guys like Ethan Bear and Micheal Ferland, and all of these other guys go back to their communities and put on hockey camps for the youth, it brings hope to them.”

“Even what Ethan Bear is doing by bringing guys like Mathew Barzal and (Former Thunderbird) Keegan Kolesar with him, these kids are star struck and I’m hoping that Conner can do the same someday. It doesn’t matter where you end up in life, whether you give back to your community through social work, being a police officer, or maybe even play in the NHL.”

First Nations players face certain barriers

While hockey is important to Canadian indigenous people, there are barriers to overcome when it comes to moving up the hockey ranks.

Many of the First Nations communities are in rural areas, making ice time and equipment hard to come by.

“I know that my community, it’s small,” Ross says. “It’s an hour out of Meadow Lake, there’s not much for hockey out there. You have to travel and its always tough. That’s where the families come in and it just shows that you have to have a community of support. It’s unreal the support I’ve had to get me where I am.”

Unlike Ross, Roulette grew up in Winnipeg, where hockey is more plentiful, but he plays in indigenous tournaments a lot and is aware of some of the barriers that his family and friends have had to overcome when it comes to playing hockey.

“Some of them don’t have hockey equipment,” Roulette says. “But they’re there every day, from 9 am to midnight when the rink closes, just taking shots. Just with skates, helmets, and gloves, every day. It’s an everyday thing for kids.”

Hockey equipment and ice time are a constant need for burgeoning young players and can be cost prohibitive. The same can be said for access to leagues, coaching, and competition.

Cook feels that there would be more First Nations players making it to the higher ranks of hockey if they were able to play more and against better players. Playing in isolated communities means fewer players to compete against and can impact development.

“I think that’s another thing that gets overlooked,” Cook adds. “It doesn’t matter where you look across the country, and maybe in the States too, you look at where the population is higher, that’s where the better players are coming out of. I see that as being an issue in our communities because even if you’re a good hockey player you’re not playing against, or with, people who are going to push you to become better.”

Family as a support group

Not only do indigenous players have the support of their communities that they grew up in, they have tremendous family support. Uncles, aunts, and cousins all cheer on and root for players as both Ross and Roulette have already experienced.

“It’s awesome,” Roulette says. “You’ve got the big families and you knew everybody growing up. They’ve supported me for a long time. A lot of the ones I’ve played with, going on the reserves and playing late night shinnys and all that. It’s good to get their support. I grew up with these guys and they’re supporting me now. I’m still going to take time out of my day to see them and enjoy the time they support me.”

Seattle rookie Conner Roulette is hugged by teammates after scoring his first career hat trick. (Brian Liesse/Thunderbirds)

Family pride is definitely part of the support and love shown to players like Ross and Roulette but the support goes deeper.

These players are doing what they love, what they’ve been passionate about their whole lives and beyond pride, the families are simply happy for the success their loved ones are experiencing.

“My family likes to see that I’m leaving and trying to get further,” Ross says. “They like to see that I’m succeeding and if I ever need anything, they’re always there for me. That means a lot, makes me want to go as far as I can.”

Can hockey grow within Washington State tribes?

Washington State is bracing for hockey growth. With the looming start to NHL Seattle in the fall of 2021 there is an expectation, and preparation, for youth hockey to boom in the region.

Local youth hockey organizations like Sno-King see the growth coming and are building a new, two-sheet facility in Snoqualmie to brace for the higher demand. The NHL team is building a three-sheet practice facility in Northgate that will help community hockey by providing much needed ice time.

At an October open house to show off the practice facility plans and designs, Seattle City Councilwoman Debra Juarez talked about her excitement for what the NHL’s involvement at the rink would mean for youth.

“They are going to work with us on an indigenous hockey league,” she said. “They are going to work with us to work with children and women, and young girls so they can play sports as well.”

NHL Seattle is indeed planning on working with local tribes, but those plans are yet to be concrete as the practice facility isn’t set to open until 2021. The team did recently announce a partnership with the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe’s Muckleshoot Casino, who blessed the land that the new Seattle Center Arena is being built on.

Cook says that he believes hockey isn’t as big with Washington State tribes as it is with Canadian indigenous communities but is excited about the NHL potentially becoming involved in supporting an indigenous league for youth.

“That’s the best news I’ve ever heard,” he says. “I think we need more things like that everywhere. We need things like that here. We need more indigenous focused hockey programming just to nurture that desire the kids have. I hope it builds.”

While NHL Seattle works on its plan, Roulette has already begun to work with local tribes.

He’s been in touch with the Muckleshoot tribe and plans on spending time volunteering in the tribal school along with attending elder and culture nights. Its something that he did back in Winnipeg and a desire he has to honor his heritage while giving back to kids who come from the same background as he has.

“Back home at school we learn about different cultures around the world,” Roulette says. “Totems and the Muckleshoots, I knew about them, coming here. Here on the West Coast they celebrate the tribes really well. It’s even better for the youth, they have the exposure for the tribe. It’s something that’s awesome here.

“I’ve been talking to Muckleshoot, I’ve been going to the school and a lot more of that will be happening. Just to give back to the indigenous communities that are around here to acknowledge them for their support and to let them know there’s an indigenous player here who’s not going to put them to the side.”

It won’t happen overnight, but the potential to grow hockey among local indigenous youth is there. It starts with players like Ross and Roulette being role models and exposing Washington kids to the life and culture they grew up with in Canada.

“I’m hoping people like Conner can go to Muckleshoot and get them involved in hockey, get them thinking about hockey,” Cook says.

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