An interesting bit of hockey history is set to unfold in Philadelphia tonight. For the first time ever, two First Nations head coaches will square off when Craig Berube’s Flyers host Ted Nolan’s Buffalo Sabres.
Tonight’s meeting is no small matter for the men involved or the minority they represent.
“It’s huge,” Nolan, an Ojibwa, told Philly.com on Wednesday. “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.”
“It’s pretty cool,” added Berube, who is part Cree.
“These coaches are real trailblazers in sport, especially in the NHL,” Peter Dinsdale, chief executive officer of the Assembly of First Nations, told Philly.com. “It’s remarkable, given all the barriers that exist for First Nations peoples.”
George Armstrong broke that barrier for First Nations coaches in the NHL when he stepped behind the Toronto Maple Leafs’ bench for 47 games during the 1988-89 season, but Nolan was the first to tackle the job full-time. He took over coaching duties in Buffalo in 1995 and went on the win the Jack Adams Award one year later. Bryan Trottier was next in line when he coached the New York Rangers in 2002-03.
Berube became the fourth Native coach earlier this season when he replaced Peter Laviolette in Philly.
Nolan made a stunning return to the NHL on November 13 after five years out of the league since his last gig with New York Islanders in 2007-08. After his departure, he’d been coaching Latvia’s national team for two years, and will continue in that post at the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Also of note, this season marks the 60th anniversary of forward Fred Sasakamoose becoming the first Native to play in the NHL. He made his debut with the Chicago Blackhawks against the Leafs on Feb. 27, 1954 and went on to appear in 10 more games that season before finishing his career in the minors.
Since then, there has been a steady stream of indigenous athletes in the league, including Grant Fuhr, Reggie Leach, Gino Odjick, Stan Jonathan, Henry Boucha and Dale McCourt.
There are currently 10 players in the league who have acknowledged Native heritage: Arron Asham, Rene Bourque, Kyle Chipchura, Vernon Fiddler, D.J. King, Dwight King, Cody McCormick, Carey Price, T. J. Oshie and Jordin Tootoo.