In Manitoba, the Pilot Mound Hockey Academy has built a reputation as a place Indigenous kids can call home and further their hockey careers.
“There’s never been a time that I’ve played there the last three years that I’ve been the only Indigenous kid,” said Harmony Chicoose of Pasqua First Nation in Saskatchewan.
“Pilot Mound is really open to all cultures and everything, and everyone is welcome there.”
Both Indigenous and non-Indigenous players from Canada and the United States find the small town attractive, and said the program makes them feel included and respected.
The players attend school in town while training four to five days a week.
“The biggest thing about our program is we’re kind of a family-oriented program,” agreed Buffaloes’ general manager Rod Collins.
“We care for all of our kids, look after their needs very carefully – whether it’s our coaches, our dorm staff, executive people in our program. So they know they’re cared for and can feel at home.”
(The Pilot Mound Buffaloes (black) and Eastman Selects (white) prepare for a faceoff in the Buffaloes zone at Bell MTS Iceplex. Darrell Stranger/APTN)
When the male and female teams travel it’s an opportunity for the Academy to showcase its select Indigenous players and how well they recruit.
Over five years, they’ve signed 37 Indigenous players, which makes up about 25 per cent of the 160 male and female players aged 15 to 17.
That may sound low but the Academy, 187 km southwest of Winnipeg, considers it a success.
“We had a good group of Indigenous players last year who’ve gone on to do great things,” added Collins.
“You know, word spreads, and I think a lot of credit goes to the girls we had last year because we’re not really necessarily seeking out those players, but when there’s a good group of girls leading the way, I think it kind of spurs that enthusiasm in others to follow.”
It was not the intention to seek out Indigenous players but head coach Harry Mahesh said it was hard to pass up recruiting them when they showed so much talent.
The hockey is played at the varsity or midget AA and AAA level.