When Tommy Neeposh was first inspired to put together the First Nation Elites, it was for a simple purpose – to give young Indigenous hockey players the opportunity to showcase their talent in front of scouts, who may not otherwise have the opportunity to see them play.
And while Neeposh has been successful in achieving his hockey-related goal, the road to get there has been far from smooth for him and his players.
The Elites made headlines in the spring of 2018 when they were the targets of vicious racist taunts while participating in the Coupe Challenge Québec AAA hockey tournament in Quebec City.
The Bantam AAA squad was comprised of 13- and 14-year-olds from a number of First Nations in Quebec, Ontario and Nova Scotia – including several players from Eeyou Istchee. At the tournament, they were called out as “savages” by opposing players, at least one coach, and by adults in attendance at the tournament, who further mocked the young Elites with stereotypical war cries and a tomahawk chop gesture clearly designed to degrade and insult the group of teenagers.
“It was really disgusting,” said Neeposh. “You’d expect more out of parents and adults in the crowd, and from the referees and tournament organizers.”
Infuriated, Neeposh appealed to the referees, who turned a blind eye to the clear lack of sportsmanship of opposing players and coaches, while tournament organizers also failed to act.
Now the incident in Quebec has turned into a positive learning experience for the First Nation Elites.
In mid-May, the team hit the ice for the AAA Montreal Meltdown Hockey Tournament at Sportplexe Pierrefonds, sporting brand new jerseys emblazoned with a clear message that racism will no longer be tolerated. Every jersey featured the slogan “#ItsNotOK” across the back in place of a nameplate along with an anti-racism logo.
“I called our team the ‘Fight the Racism Elites’ for the tournament,” said Neeposh. “Racism is nothing new in hockey, just like in other parts of life, but it is never an issue that gets talked about or addressed in hockey, and it’s about time it did.”
The NHL has engaged in highly publicized initiatives focused on diversity and inclusion, such as “Hockey is for Everyone”, as well as the “You Can Play” campaign spearheaded by former Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke in a bid to fight homophobia in sports. But the hockey world has failed to take the aggressive no-tolerance steps that have been taken in other sports, such as the “No to Racism” campaign undertaken by UEFA, the governing body of soccer in Europe.
“There is a lot of talk about no tolerance at hockey tournaments, but in practice nothing is ever done. Kids, like the ones on our team, still get subjected to racism and it is about time something was done about it,” explained Neeposh.
The jerseys received widespread media coverage, while many people were eager to learn where they could buy them.
Neeposh appreciates the support, but most important to him are his boys and the opportunities that hockey can provide them.
“Things are going to be tough enough for some of these kids without them having to put up with being called savages,” he observed. “What I want is for them to get the opportunities to do something good in life, even if it is not in hockey.”
The Montreal Meltdown initiative came on the heels of a number of encouraging contacts in the hockey world over the past year.
After news got out about the disgrace at the Coupe Challenge Québec AAA, Todd Woodcroft, the assistant coach of the Winnipeg Jets, got in touch with Neeposh. Woodcroft was eager to work with the Elites to show a different side of the hockey world, one that was about teamwork and positive personal development. That resulted in a mini-camp held in the Ottawa area that included a number of Jets prospects.
Then Bonnie O’Reilly – the mother of Ryan O’Reilly, who is currently playing in the Stanley Cup Final with the St. Louis Blues – also reached out to the Elites.
That led to the club returning to Ottawa earlier this season to spend a day with the O’Reillys, as well as other members of the Blues including interim head coach Craig Berube, a Cree from Calahoo, Alberta, before taking in the action as St. Louis played the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre.
“Bonnie O’Reilly was amazing,” said Neeposh. “It was a very special day for the players, getting to meet Craig Berube and the Blues. I think a few of our boys have become fans, and have been pulling for St. Louis in the playoffs ever since.”
But while the actions of the Jets and Blues, and people like the O’Reilly family have gone a long way to ease the sting of what the young players were forced to endure, it has been just the start for Neeposh in his quest to create a hockey environment in which there is no place for racism.