From the Ivy League to inspiring Indigenous youth, Devin Buffalo sets his own path

Devin Buffalo is focusing on inspiring and motivating local Indigenous youth after spending half a decade in the U.S. playing collegiate and professional hockey.

Former professional goalie is back home, focusing on motivational speaking and anti-racism in hockey

Devin Buffalo, a former professional goaltender, speaks to students of Nipisihkopahk Secondary School in Maskwacis, Alta., as part of his virtual tour. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

After the national anthem, hockey goalie Devin Buffalo would glance at the words nâpehkâsoweyinew on his helmet and read them out loud. 

It closely translates to "a younger warrior or brave" in Cree.

"That's how I would start every game and I think that's how I navigate life too," Buffalo said.

The Cree former professional hockey player grew up in Wetaskiwin and is a member of the Samson Cree Nation. He's now living in the Edmonton area.

After residing in the United States for nearly half a decade, the hockey player is pursuing a different goal as started Waniska Athletics last year. It includes apparel, motivational speaking and hockey camps.

Buffalo envisions a wave of Indigenous youth breaking barriers, and flipping negative stereotypes. He wants to be a part of that by inspiring and mentoring them.

"I want to really promote that Indigenous people can do anything we want and for our dreams not to be put in a box or to be changed by other people," he said

Buffalo relates this with his own story, when in high school he set a goal of attending Harvard University, but a counsellor advised him to focus on something more attainable.

"I believed it for a bit, until I decided not to listen to her and go chase this dream," he said.

The reality wasn't that far off as he enrolled at Dartmouth College, another Ivy League school in New Hampshire, in 2014 with a hockey scholarship before graduating in 2018 with a political science degree.

In his last year he was nominated for the Hobey Baker Award, which is given to the top men's hockey player in the NCAA.

Devin Buffalo was a goaltender for Dartmouth College, of the NCAA Ivy League, before graduating in 2018. (Dartmouth College Varsity Athletics)

Buffalo's professional career was short-lived, with stints on three ECHL teams in a year before finishing the season with Edmonton Oilers affiliate Wichita Thunder.

He returned home after an injury sustained in a vehicle collision and is now using his hockey experience to lead him on another path fuelled by passion.

"I don't think it was my journey to make the NHL," he said.

"Waniska is going to be something very special in the future and that's what kind of gets me excited. It is my passion. It's always on my mind to a point where i can't sleep at night and I'm just writing down ideas."

He's currently on a virtual tour speaking at schools, encouraging students to set their sights high and reminding them that an education at an Ivy League school is possible.

On Thursday he was the keynote speaker of the Still I Rise virtual youth conference hosted by the Maskwacis Education School Commission.

The conference focused on resiliency. Students at schools in the district watched from their classrooms as Buffalo spoke about his story and his methods for achieving goals.

Jayden Rain, a grade 12 student at Nipisihkopahk Secondary School in Maskwacis, Alta., watched Devin Buffalo's virtual presentation on Thursday. (Travis McEwan/CBC)

Jayden Rain, 17, watched from Nipisihkopahk Secondary School in Maskwacis, which is 95 kilometres south of Edmonton.

The Grade 12 student has been accepted to multiple post secondary schools and has an interest in kinesiology. She has been involved in athletics and Buffalo's presentation inspired her to continue to find a way do to that after high school. 

"There's not many Indigenous children out there that play or have that goal to continue," Rain said. "They just stop in high school. I think it's really inspiring to be a role model like him and it pushes me to want to do something like that as well, because I don't want to stop in high school."

That's what Cassandra Omeasoo, a counselor at Nipisihkopahk Secondary School, likes to hear. Buffalo's presentation resonated with many of the students as they have a passion for hockey, she said. But she's hoping the message of focusing on their goals and education resonates even more.

"I hope that it encourages them to keep going and rise to their goals and their challenges and, you know, just push for success," Omeasoo said.

As for Buffalo, he's been reaching out to young Indigenous goalies to help them develop, and also mentor them — paying forward the mentorship he received.

He's planning to host camps this summer for elite players and community-based ones for players who want to give goaltending a shot. 

Devin Buffalo poses with a young goaltender at at skills event on the Frog Lake First Nation. (Supplied by Devin Buffalo)

Buffalo experienced racism in hockey, remembering a time when an opposing player referred to him as "just another Indian" during a game. He used the incident to drive him to break stereotypes faced by Indigenous people.

He's been involved in anti-racism campaigns in hockey and plans to help improve policy when it comes to diversity and inclusion in the sport in the province and the country.

"It is tough to talk about race and racism in the sport, because everyone loves hockey and I love hockey. Hockey has given me so many opportunities, but I think it could be better," he said. "Why wouldn't we want to improve the game for everyone?"

Buffalo is also focused on law as he recently passed his LSAT and has been accepted to law school at the University of Alberta. He's not sure how that will fit with Waniska Athletics, but if anything it adds it to his ever-changing resume to inspire others.


Travis McEwan

Video journalist

Travis McEwan is a video journalist who covers stories ranging from human interest and sports to municipal and provincial issues. Originally from Churchill, Man., Travis has spent the last decade working at CBC Edmonton reporting for web, radio and television. Email story ideas to travis.mcewan@cbc.ca.