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Nipissing Warriors story to be told at Hockey Hall of Fame

The story of a legendary hockey team from a northern Ontario First Nation is going to be told at the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Nipissing Warriors will be featured in an exhibit on diversity in hockey starting next month.

Fan favourites were the first all Indigenous team in Nipissing district league in late 1960s

Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod jokes around with Nipissing Warriors legend Frank Couchie on the community's new covered rink. (Erik White/CBC )

The story of a legendary hockey team from a northern Ontario First Nation is going to be told at the Hockey Hall of Fame.

The Nipissing Warriors will be featured in an exhibit on diversity in hockey starting next month.

Specifically, it will share the story of the first team from the community to call themselves Warriors from the late 1960s and early 1970s.

They were the first all Indigenous team to take on men's teams from the neighbouring towns of Sturgeon Falls, Verner and Field, as well as squads from other First Nations in the north. 

Frank Couchie, 69, hadn't been on skates for 20 years when he met CBC at the Nipissing First Nation rink. He borrowed the skates from his grandson. (Erik White/CBC )

It's been 20 years since Frank Couchie was last on skates.

The 69-year-old borrowed this pair from his grandson, to take a couple of laps at Nipissing First Nation's new $800,000 covered rink.

Back when he started with the Warriors in the late 1960s, they had nowhere to practice, other than the natural ice of Lake Nipissing.

Couchie is thrilled to see the new generation of Warriors wearing the same colours as they did.

"Same name, same logo and grandkids they try to wear their grandfather's number, eh?" he says.

"My grandson says 'Hey grandpa, you must have been a dirty player, everyone I see says 'a lot of stick work!'" 

Frank Couchie during the heyday of the Nipissing Warriors in the late 1960s, early 1970s. (Nipissing First Nation )

The Warriors didn't have home ice in the 1970s, but people from the community would flood into rinks where they were playing.

But where you sat was determined by the colour of your team's jersey and the colour of your skin.

Couchie says he look up in the stands during a game and see racial insults being hotly exchanged back and forth.

"They'd be arguing back and forth, yelling and we'd be on the ice doing the same thing. It was a good atmosphere," he remembers. 

"But then after you see the guys you played against and have a beer and just a big laugh, eh? I have lots of friends I played against, I told them after the game 'It's over, it's over.'"

Nipissing First Nation Chief Scott McLeod says the Warriors hockey team in the 1970s set the stage for his community to get its identity back. (Erik White/CBC)

Scott McLeod went to a few of those Warriors games as a kid.

He later played forward wearing the same red and black jersey.

He's now the chief of Nipissing First Nation and believes those Warriors teams and all the success they had helped restore the community's pride at at time when it was struggling with alcoholism and poverty.

"You know I think they contributed to pulling us out of those dark periods and into the thriving community that we are today. It was about more than just hockey," MeLeod says.

Nipissing First Nation last year partnered with Nipissing University and Regan Productions on a documentary film to tell the story of the Warriors. 

McLeod says hockey is now a tradition for the Nipissing people, as it is for First Nations across the country.

"I look at it this way: hockey was born in Canada. Canada is First Nation country. So it's not so much a colonial sport, as it is a combined First Nation-settler sport," McLeod says.

"We just shine a little better than them," he adds with a laugh. 

The story of a legendary hockey team from a northern Ontario First Nation is going to be told at the Hockey Hall of Fame. The Nipissing Warriors will be featured in an exhibit on diversity in hockey starting next month. This documentary was prepared by the CBC's Erik White. 6:13

About the Author

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury, Ont. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca