Manitoba junior hockey league team the Neepawa Natives are no more – or at least in name.
According to General Manager Ken Pearson, the team voted to drop its name this week.
“The board just wanted to stay ahead of the curve and look at maybe a fresh start,” he said. “The team has lots of history, good and bad, and I think it’s an opportunity for a rebrand and a fresh start.”
The move follows weeks of media coverage surrounding contentious team names and mascots in professional sports.
After years of mounting pressure from Indigenous groups, professional football teams in Edmonton and Washington decided to drop their offensive names.
On Thursday, Cleveland’s professional basketball team announced that it is starting a review of its name.
“Some of the recent changes in the sporting world in regards to team names maybe accelerated a little bit the decision to look at making a change,” said Pearson.
The junior team was founded in 1989, but the name itself came two decades earlier with the creation of the town’s intermediate team.
Players at the time believed the term “Natives” complemented the town name of Neepawa, which means plenty or abundance in Cree.
Pearson, who played in the junior team’s first year, is happy to lead the name change as coach and general manager.
“There’s some mixed emotions, obviously, but I think that I’m also excited to embrace and usher in a new era of Neepawa hockey,” he said.
Southern Chiefs’ Organization Grand Chief Jerry Daniels is not surprised to see these smaller leagues address name changes.
“Because it’s being challenged now at a larger level internationally you see more localized responses to that…it’s going to change the thinking and decades from now these kinds of things will be understood as something that shouldn’t be said,” Daniels said.
The association representing teams in the province announced last week they would be looking at revising regulations so they can force teams to drop controversial names.
But is changing a name enough to address on-going racism on or off the field, ice or mound?
Daniels said he believes teams need to take things further to ensure Indigenous people excel in the sporting world not just as players but as coaches, referees and management.
“It’s one part to addressing racism in the system. There’s lots of institutions that we have to address,” said Daniels.
“It takes partnership, collaboration and relationship building.”
Daniels, along with other First Nations leadership, recently met with the mayor of Morden who is in favour of changing the controversial name of the rural city’s senior men’s hockey team. The team’s owner has committed to conducting a review but no word yet on when that will be completed.
Pearson and the Neepawa team are in the process of speaking with alumni, locals, sponsors and former Indigenous players to come up with a new team name.