The month of April came to a bittersweet close for the community of Waswanipi.
The Waswanipi Chiefs once again put Eeyou Istchee on the national hockey map, claiming victory April 28 at this year’s Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstick” All-Reserve Invitation Senior Contact Hockey Tournament in Saskatoon.
But it was with heavy hearts that the squad raised the hardware, as they dedicated their win at the fast-growing national Indigenous hockey tournament to a founding member of the squad, Paul Ottereyes, who lost his life the previous day in a car accident just outside Val-d’Or.
The Chiefs were one of 32 all-First Nations teams from across Canada that made the trip to the Prairies to take part in the fourth edition of tourney.
Organized by Fred Sasakamoose – the first Indigenous player to play in the NHL when he suited up for 11 games with the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1953-1954 campaign – the tournament goal is to develop First Nations hockey players from across Canada. It’s part of Saskamoose’s dream to see an all-First Nations team one day compete in the Winter Olympics.
Chris Cooper was the catalyst for the Chiefs’ involvement in this year’s tournament. A long-time member of the Chiefs, Cooper participated in last year’s event with the Cree Nation Drummers, and played a key role in rallying his Chiefs teammates to make a return trip to Saskatchewan this year.
With $45,000 in prize money on the line, the Chiefs needed an overtime goal from Alex Cooper in the championship finals to earn a narrow 4-3 win over Manitoba’s Cross Lake Islanders.
The win was a proud moment for Chris Cooper, the oldest member of the current roster. But the thoughts of both Cooper and his teammates remained with their fallen teammate Ottereyes, who was honoured with a moment of silence and a pipe ceremony just prior to the championship game.
“I spoke to the guys before the game to let them know what happened with Paul, and we wanted to dedicate our tournament to him,” he said. Chris Cooper was a long time friend of Ottereyes, who helped establish the Waswanipi Chiefs during the 1980s.
“He was a hockey guy,” Cooper said. “He wasn’t a flashy player, but he played with a big heart, and always stood up for his teammates on the ice.”
Ottereyes also had a passion for traditional cooking, something that clearly stuck out in Chris Cooper’s mind during his conversation with the Nation.
“Paul loved cooking, especially doing traditional cooking,” Cooper recalled. “When I recently saw him, I had a chance to enjoy some of his smoked sturgeon, and now I am glad I was able to spend that time with him.”
The April 27 accident also took the lives of Stella Polson and Philippe Boutin. Originally from the Timiskaming First Nation, Polson had lived in Waswanipi for many years, while Boutin is best remembered as the former mayor of Lorrainville, Quebec.
While the community of Waswanipi remains in mourning, the Chiefs’ victory in Saskatchewan has helped to heal the blow.
“This is something our community and the Cree Nation should be proud of,” said Vern Cooper of the Chiefs’ tournament victory.
“Especially for Waswanipi, we had lost a founding member of our team and there were guys on the team that were related to him. It was kind of a shock for us to hear the news while we were there. But we had each other’s backs and said we’re gonna win this for the people back home.”
Vern Cooper said a team effort was the key to the Chiefs’ success at this year’s tourney.
“Everyone contributed in their own way to help the team out,” he emphasized. “We had goals from different guys, guys that made big hits, blocked shots. You name it, our guys were willing to do anything to win.”
In addition to the 32 teams participating on the ice, there was no shortage of Indigenous hockey stars in attendance at 2019 Fred Sasakamoose “Chief Thunderstick” All-Reserve Invitation Senior Contact Hockey Tournament.
Among the notables were Stanley Cup champion Dwight King, Edmonton Oilers prospect Ethan Bear, and Team Canada women’s hockey silver medallist Brigette Lacquette.
The community of Waswanipi continues to grieve the loss of one of their own, but those left behind can take solace in the hockey legacy that Paul Ottereyes has left behind. He helped set the stage for bigger and better days ahead for young hockey players across Eeyou Istchee.