John Chabot says things are getting better for First Nations hockey players

John Chabot says things are getting better for First Nations hockey players
That’s because Chabot knows what he’s talking about. He is an Algonquin from the community of Kitigan Zibi — in the Outaouais region near Maniwaki — who has played in the National Hockey League and has spent a good chunk of the years since retiring from the NHL helping kids from aboriginal communities improve their hockey skills.

Chabot, a centre, broke into the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens during the 1983-84 season, scoring a more-than-respectable 18 goals and notching 43 points in his rookie season. He was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins the following season and spent three years in Pittsburgh, before spending three seasons and change with the Detroit Red Wings.

He then spent a decade playing in elite leagues in Europe and, after that, coached in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and also spent a year as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders.

Former Montreal Canadien John Chabot coaches young hockey players from First Nations communities. Courtesy of Nish Media

But in a phone interview recently from his home in Gatineau, Chabot said it’s much more fulfilling for him to coach First Nations teenagers than it was to be behind the bench for an NHL team. He has been head coach at the training camp for aboriginal youth featured on the reality-TV series Hit the Ice since it began five years ago. The fifth season of the series, which is produced by Gatineau-based Nish Media, makes its debut Thursday at 4:30 p.m. on APTN.

Chabot says the situation is improving for hockey players with aboriginal roots, but notes that it still isn’t easy.

“I think the biggest problem right now is that they carry the past and that’s not the players, it’s the organizations,” said Chabot. “At times, they’ve been burnt in the past by kids going home. So they’re a little more reticent about bringing kids in. So sometimes they’re not given the benefit of a doubt, which is unfortunate. But hockey is a results-based sport and I think the mindset has changed. In the past, I’d say there were situations where I was coached by guys who were a little racist, but I also think that has changed because they want guys who can play the game. And if you’re First Nations or European, they don’t really (look at that) as much. We’ve come a long way in sports and life.”

Chabot began playing in the NHL more than 30 years ago and he says being aboriginal didn’t hinder his career at all.

“No, because I broke in with Montreal, and Montreal was ‘the’ model and still is the model for how organizations are run in the NHL,” said Chabot. “They just do things the right way all the time. They celebrated the fact through the press that I was First Nations. It was never held against me. Was it out there? I heard from some other guys it was. I’ve encountered stuff on the ice when I played. But unfortunately it’s part of the game, where guys say things about guys to try to get under your skin and whether they mean it or not is another story completely.”

As we talked, I couldn’t help thinking of Carey Price, who is the highest-profile NHL star with an aboriginal background. I asked Chabot if he thought Price’s roots in a rural First Nations community perhaps led to some of the difficulties Price had early in his career adjusting to life as a pro hockey player in a place like Montreal.

“The culture shock for a First Nations kid coming from a small community is huge,” said Chabot. “Family is such a huge fabric of how you are raised. A lot of the communities in the North, you can walk down the street and someone’s having dinner and it’s not odd for you to join them. Even in a (non-aboriginal) small town in Canada, you’re not going to walk into someone’s house and sit down and have dinner. This is how our kids were raised. Everybody raised everybody’s children. So to leave that, yeah, it is extremely hard. Is it getting better? Yes, there’s more understanding.”

Head coach John Chabot with players from a hockey camp in a scene from the reality-TV series Hit the Ice. Courtesy of Nish Media

Young indigenous hockey players from across Canada congregated in Winnipeg last summer for the training camp that is featured in the new season of Hit the Ice. During its five seasons, the camp has helped a number of players make it to some of the country’s top leagues, including the QMJHL, Ontario Hockey League and the Western Hockey League — though they’ve yet to have one of their alumni make it to the NHL.

For Chabot, the camp and the show aren’t even about making it in professional hockey. It’s really just to deliver a positive message to young people from First Nations communities, and that’s what he does the rest of the year, travelling across the country, particularly in the Far North, giving hockey clinics.

“What I do is hockey-based because that’s been my life. But also understand that there are very few people who get to play a professional sport,” said Chabot. “It’s not all about the glory. It’s about the understanding that you can do it, too, whether you’re white or First Nations or Asian.”
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