Saskatchewan Rush opening home games this season by gifting Indigenous star blankets

The National Lacrosse League's Saskatchewan Rush have been opening this season's home games with a new tradition the team hopes will live on — presenting the opposing team's head coach or general manager with an Indigenous star blanket.

Blanket maker says she loves new pregame ritual's acknowledgement of Indigenous peoples

Three men stand in the centre of a stadium, one with a red, black and white star blanket wrapped around him.
Saskatoon Tribal Chief Mark Arcand and Saskatchewan Rush general manager Derek Keenan wrap Pat Coyle, head coach and assistant general manager of the Colorado Mammoths, in a traditional Indigenous star blanket ahead of their game at the SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon on Dec. 3, 2022. ( Saskatchewan Rush)

The Saskatchewan Rush have a new pregame tradition that centres on an Indigenous cultural ceremony.

From now until the end of this National Lacrosse League season, whenever a new Rush opponent enters the SaskTel Centre, their general manager will be given an Indigenous star blanket.

It began with the team's first home game of the season on Dec. 3, when Saskatoon Tribal Chief Mark Arcand and Rush general manager Derek Keenan wrapped a blanket around Pat Coyle, the head coach and assistant general manager of the visiting Colorado Mammoths.

It was the first of seven such gifts planned for this season. Three of the blankets — each matching the opposing team's colours — have been given so far.

"The game can be hostile and aggressive and violent at times as a game, but it was really a true sign of respect to our opponent," said Tyler Wawryk, director of team business operations with the Rush.

Two men stand around a third in the centre with a black and white star blanket wrapped around him
Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand, left, and Saskatchewan Rush general manager Derek Keenan, right, honour Las Vegas Desert Dogs head coach and general manager Shawn Williams with a star blanket ahead of their game on Saturday. (Saskatchewan Rush)

Wawryk, who also works for the WHL's Saskatoon Blades, said he and other Blades staff members were invited in September to a powwow at Big River First Nation after a preseason game, and were given star blankets.

The Rush decided it would be a great way to welcome people to the home of the Rush, especially with lacrosse having Indigenous roots.

"We had that first-hand experience and it was such a special moment," Wawryk said.

Two men hold a black and white blanket embroidered with a star
The star blanket gifted to the Las Vegas Desert Dogs. (Saskatchewan Rush)

Wawryk said the team wants to bring more dedicated Indigenous aspects to the game experience, like the blankets and land acknowledgements it started making last season.

The new pregame tradition has opened the floor to visiting teams to ask questions about the ceremony and its meaning, Wawryk said.

Star blanket ceremony acknowledges Indigenous history

Corinne Stevens-Belanger, co-owner of Cree Star Gifts in Manitoba and a member of the Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, helped quilt the blankets sent to the Rush, alongside a small group of other women. 

She operates the business alongside her husband John Belanger, a member of White Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan.

She said star blankets replaced the buffalo robe, which was used to acknowledge achievements and contributions from community members, and at events like marriages and graduations.

"I absolutely love it," she said of the Rush team gifting the blankets to their opponents.

"I think it's a way to acknowledge treaty land.… We should be nation building and not tearing each other down and it's just a nice way to acknowledge the original peoples of Canada."

Stevens-Belanger said seeing Indigenous tradition in public helps young people feel good about their culture.

"When you see it in sport too, it reminds people of that message, that we're still here," she said.