An NHL first at Flyers vs. Sabres

Nolan
Nolan
Posted: November 22, 2013

THEIR ANCESTORS helped develop the game centuries ago. There have been Indians in the NHL for 60 years.

But not until today will two Natives meet as head coaches in the NHL.

They are First Nations men, to be precise; that is the correct nomenclature in Canada. Sabres coach Ted Nolan is an Ojibwe from Ontario. Flyers coach Craig Berube is part Cree, and from Alberta.

"It's huge," Nolan said upon his arrival in Philadelphia yesterday. "The significance of it is not really what it means to me, or Craig Berube, but what it means when you think of what our ancestors went through."

"I guess you'd think about it. You'd think there'd be some other Native coach that would've come out by now and been a coach," Berube said. "It's pretty cool."

Bryan Trottier is the only other First Nations head coach in NHL history.

The confluence of Nolan and Berube was first noticed by William Douglas, who runs the Washington-based blog, colorofhockey.com. Even those commissioned with advocating for aboriginals were unaware of the significance of the puck-drop tonight at the Wells Fargo Center.

"These coaches are real trailblazers in sport, especially in the NHL," said Peter Dinsdale, chief executive officer of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN). "It's remarkable, given all the barriers that exist for First Nations peoples."

Dinsdale spoke yesterday morning from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, at the AFN's National Youth Summit, where the focus is on healthy communities for First Nations kids at a greater risk from drugs, alcohol, poverty, poor diet and suicide.

Children growing up on reserves - what Americans call reservations - seldom get the chances afforded Canada's general population.

"I think there would be so many more coaches like Ted and Craig, if more people had access to equipment and resources," Dinsdale said.

Berube, 47, did not grow up on a reserve, but he said he often played for hockey and fast-pitch softball teams on the reserves around Calahoo. He isn't sure how much Cree he has in him - it comes mainly from his grandmother, but he probably isn't even 50 percent Cree - and he isn't particularly sensitive about it.

He has his nickname, "Chief," written on his shower shoes, his alias since he was a 16-year-old in junior hockey. He has never considered it derogatory. He has never experienced racism.

He is indifferent about the Washington football team's nickname: "It doesn't bother me at all."

Nolan has said he considers the term "Redskins" highly offensive. He believes a good old boy network limited chances for First Nations candidates to get jobs, to retain them, to be promoted.

"You had to be tougher than the average bear," Nolan said. "There weren't too many places you went that you didn't take some abuse. And you felt you had to be better than others just to get a chance."

Berube's theory is less pointed.

"There's a lot of Natives that played hockey. Good players over the years," Berube said. "I guess they just weren't interested in coaching. In the NHL, there might be disinterest because you've got to earn it down in the minors, in junior, put your time in, work your way up."

The best First Nations players were Trottier, who scored 500 of his 524 goals with the Islanders, and goalie Grant Fuhr, who anchored the Oilers' dynasty to four Stanley Cups before moving on to five other teams.

The first Native player was Fred Sasakamoose, who played 11 games in the 1953-54 season for the Black Hawks.

The best Flyer aboriginal was Reggie Leach, a key component during the glory years now almost 40 years removed.

George Armstrong coached the Maple Leafs for 47 games in 1988-89.

Nolan, 55, was the second Native coach, hired in 1995 to coach Buffalo, where he won the Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's top coach in his second season. He was part of a toxic situation in Buffalo, however, which helped the Sabres decide to not to extend his contract. He got sniffs soon thereafter, but did not coach in the NHL again until 2006, lasting two seasons with the Islanders.

Nolan said in his time away from the NHL he suffered from stigmas: "There were innuendos. Spiteful hearsay. It was especially tough, raising two boys. Very emotionally taxing."

Nolan's elder son, Brandon, 30, made it to the NHL for the 2007-08 season. Jordan, 24, won a Stanley Cup as a rookie with the Kings in 2012.

In between Nolan's jobs with the Sabres and Islanders, Trottier coached the Rangers for 54 games of the 2002-03 season. Perhaps Islanders assistant John Chabot, 49, will make it to the top.

"This is the second wave of First Nations players," Dinsdale said.

Perhaps someone like 36-year-old Rocky Thompson will fight his way out of the AHL, where he is an assistant in Oklahoma City. Maybe goaltender Carey Price or right wing Aaron Asham will get the urge to coach. At least the list of candidates is growing.

"They," Dinsdale said, "are real role models for First Nations peoples."


Email: hayesm@phillynews.com

On Twitter: @inkstainedretch

Blog: ph.ly/DNL

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