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Beloved NHL enforcer Gino Odjick dies at 52

BY Ben Powless Feb 10, 2023

Gino Odjick, a former NHL player from Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nation near Maniwaki, passed away January 15 at the age of 52, his family announced in a social media post. 

“Our hearts are broken. My brother Gino Odjick has left us for the spirit world,” his sister Dina Odjick posted on Facebook. “We are saddened to announce the passing of my brother Gino Odjick on Jan. 15. A life so beautifully lived deserves to be beautifully remembered,” wrote another sister, Janique Odjick. 

Odjick became famous as an enforcer with the Vancouver Canucks, playing with them for eight years. He then spent time with the New York Islanders and Philadelphia Flyers before finishing his career with the Montreal Canadiens – for whom he scored his last NHL goal during the 2002 playoffs.

“Gino was a fan-favourite from the moment he joined the organization, putting his heart and soul into every shift on and off the ice,” Vancouver Canucks Chairman and Governor Francesco Aquilini commented.

Throughout his NHL career, Odjick wore the number 29 on his jersey in honour of his father Joseph, who was given that number when he was registered at the Spanish Indian Residential School in Ontario.

In 2014, Odjick was diagnosed with amyloidosis, which affects organ function. Odjick shared a message through his best friend, Peter Leech, which explained that when he was first diagnosed, “We thought it was going to be the end of Gino’s life.” 

Indeed, doctors told Odjick he may have only months or weeks to live, but he survived nearly a decade with the incurable disease. 

“He always thought of himself with the quote we would share with the Indigenous youth in our workshops together, ‘We are two little old Indian boys who grew up on the rez, if we can do it, why can’t you do it?’ He never forgot where he came from, and who he was,” Leech said in the statement.

Used sparingly, Odjick still managed to rack up 64 goals and 73 assists in 605 professional games and was part of the Canucks’ Stanley Cup finals team in 1994. That was also his best offensive season, scoring 16 goals. However, he was best known for his physicality, incurring 2,567 penalty minutes during his 15-year career.

“In the early days of his career, he visited the youth, he donated hockey equipment, and he helped our youth pursue their dreams. Finally, he provided advice to aspiring hockey players and was a strong advocate for First Nations education,” Kitigan Zibi Chief Dylan Whiteduck said in a statement.

“Mr. Odjick was a proud Algonquin Anishinabe and the community is very proud of his accomplishments. Gino was a hero and a community legend. It’s a tremendous loss for the community and the Algonquin Nation.”

His cousin Norm Odjick told the Nation that Gino only decided to pursue hockey in his teenage years. “He wasn’t the most dedicated student,” Norm remembered with a laugh. 

When a teacher asked what he wanted to do in life, Gino said he was going to play in the NHL. “The teacher said good luck with that,” Norm chuckled. 

He would later play as a junior with the Hawkesbury Hawks where he would earn the name “The Algonquin Assassin” for his skills as a fighter, before joining the Laval Titans in the Quebec Major Junior league. It was then that he was called up to the big leagues, being drafted in the fifth round by the Canucks in 1990.  

“We were pretty excited when he got drafted by the Canucks. Coming from the rez, the odds are against you. It was amazing he got the chance and stayed there for so long,” Norm added. He said that Gino was a major source of pride for the community. “It gave people a chance to see that if you work hard enough, you can live your dream.”

It was a big change moving to Vancouver from a small reserve. But Gino fell in love with Vancouver and the local First Nations, eventually moving back there after he retired.

Norm credited Gino’s longevity to his ability to protect his teammates. In his first game, he fought with two established heavyweights, which earned him the respect and admiration of Vancouver fans. “That impressed people a lot, never backing down from anyone,” Norm said. 

However, his biggest impact would come when he used his celebrity to visit Indigenous communities to speak with youth and conduct workshops, Norm said. “His legacy to me is his kindness and willingness to help everyone, especially the youth – and his big message wasn’t about sports, but education: the key to success in the future lies in education.”

Off the ice, “He liked to joke around a lot, one of those guys who loved life.” After he retired, Norm said, people would frequently approach him for a photo or autograph, which he never shied away from. That Gino always took the time to talk to fans was part of his humility, Norm added. 

“It was the hockey that made him famous, but it was everything he did for First Nations and First Nations youth that kept him being so loved by everyone,” Norm emphasized. 

Flags at City of Vancouver buildings were lowered to half-mast in his remembrance, while the Canucks held a pre-game ceremony and moment of silence on January 18. In Maniwaki, a “Hometown Celebration of Life” was held January 29 at the local arena, Le Centre Gino-Odjick.

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Ben Powless is a Kanien'kehá:ka and Anishnabek writer and photographer, currently living in Ottawa. He has a degree in Human Rights, Indigenous and Environmental Studies from Carleton University.