How playing for the Beardy's Blackhawks changed Craig McCallum's life
Program coming to an end after this season 'is more than just a hockey program for so many people'
For Craig McCallum, playing for the Beardy's Blackhawks midget AAA hockey team was life-changing.
Now, he says he's sad to hear the team won't be playing in Beardy's & Okemasis Cree Nation after this season.
"That program is more than just a hockey program for so many people," McCallum said — and for First Nations kids in Saskatchewan, what the Blackhawks program offered is crucial, he said.
"I can look back to my year, and other people that have played there — they would never have gotten the opportunity to play in that league on any other team."
After a process that required the league's current teams to reapply for standing for next season — which included extending an open invitation for other minor hockey associations to bid for a team — a committee of the Saskatchewan Hockey Association announced its decision earlier this month to move the Beardy's Blackhawks from the First Nation, about 80 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon, to Warman beginning next season.
That's disappointing for McCallum, who played for the team during the 2006-07 season — a season that he says helped him find his love for the game again, after experiencing racism playing for other teams.
Now 30, McCallum started playing midget AAA hockey in North Battleford in 2004, after he was drafted by the Western Hockey League's Lethbridge Hurricanes in the bantam draft.
He said the move to playing midget AAA hockey in North Battleford was huge — but it was the worst experience he could have imagined.
McCallum said growing up, his parents prepared him for the racism he would face from fans, or opposing players and coaches. But racism in his own dressing room wasn't even considered.
"I wasn't prepared for it," McCallum told CBC Radio.
"You're supposed to go to battle with these guys every night, and they don't respect you and your people. How do you deal with that? At 15, 16, I didn't know how to deal with that."
McCallum — who is from Canoe Lake Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan — thinks there were maybe two other people before him from his home community who played hockey at the midget AAA level.
He said there was one other Indigenous person on his team when he played in North Battleford; across the league, he estimated there were one or two other Indigenous players.
The Beardy's Blackhawks team of the day had about a dozen Indigenous players.
'I tried to quit'
The racism he said he endured in North Battleford affected both his play on the ice and his love of the game.
"I remember my first year, getting a bit of power play time, not really any [penalty killing] time," he said.
"Same thing the second year, I got even less, but I think the coaching staff could tell I didn't really care, I didn't want to be there at that point. I tried to quit halfway through the year. I didn't want to go back."
The difference for me was being in a dressing room where I didn't have to deal with any sort of racism or discrimination.… [It was] being around people that were like me, but also people that accepted me and respected me.- Craig McCallum
He said his parents forced him back onto the ice, given the amount of money they had spent on his hockey career to that point. Once the season ended, he decided he wouldn't play hockey anymore.
The summer before what was supposed to be his final season, he said he experienced a life-changing moment.
"I had kind of an epiphany moment — my 'TSN turning point' was July in that summer. I had an experience with drugs and alcohol that made me want to quit [using them]. I decided to quit drinking and doing drugs and cut that stuff out of my life," he said.
From that moment forward, doors started to open for McCallum. His cousin was trying out to play for the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League's La Ronge Ice Wolves, but was told he needed more development.
McCallum's cousin was told to try out for the Beardy's Blackhawks instead. McCallum tagged along in an effort to make his cousin's transition to living away from home easier.
He asked to be released from the North Battleford team — a team he felt wasn't giving him an opportunity to play, and didn't care about his life off the ice.
McCallum didn't get released.
"It took some convincing and a call from a good friend of mine, Eugene Arcand, to the general manager of [Saskatchewan Hockey Association] at the time, to let him know what was going on," McCallum said. "After that, they released me."
He told the Blackhawks' management what his plan was: try out for the team and help his cousin with the transition for a week or two.
One week turned into one month, and one month turned into two. Eventually, McCallum said he found his love for the game again.
He went on to lead the league in scoring the year he played for the Blackhawks, and his performance garnered co-MVP honours that year.
"The difference for me was being in a dressing room where I didn't have to deal with any sort of racism or discrimination," he said.
"[It was] being around people that were like me, but also people that accepted me and respected me."
McCallum would go on to play for the Edmonton Oil Kings and the Prince Albert Raiders in the WHL, before joining the University of Saskatchewan Huskies.
Now, he says the end of the Blackhawks program in Beardy's & Okemasis means the loss of a goal to work toward for many First Nations kids like him.
There are other teams to play for, he acknowledges, but he's worried First Nations players won't get the same kind of opportunity they got from the Blackhawks.
"It takes away their opportunity to not have an extra obstacle to prevent them from playing the sport," McCallum said.
"Beardy's doesn't look at your history. They don't judge you based on their experience with someone else."
With files from Blue Sky and Kelly Provost