It was a history making junior hockey event at Dryden Memorial Arena in northwestern Ontario. To be sure, it was no ordinary regular season contest as the Dryden Ice Dogs faced off against the visiting Thunder Bay North Stars in Superior International Jr. Hockey League action — and at the same time hosted a landmark Truth and Reconciliation game.
The junior hockey game was played in conjunction with Canada’s first ever National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30, 2021.
The new federal holiday honours victims and survivors of Canada’s residential schools, which sought to forcefully assimilate Indigenous children. The discovery of hundreds of unmarked burial sites of students earlier this year sparked national outrage.
As for the history making junior hockey game in Dryden, the host Ice Dogs used the event as their way of trying to right the wrongs of the past and come together to lead the healing process and be rightfully proud of the work that has been done for reconciliation.
Dryden, a town of just under 8,000 residents, created a whole day of events in honour of Truth and Reconciliation.
Guests of honour were legendary, former National Hockey League superstar Reggie Leach and his son Jamie Leach. The two are the only Indigenous father/son duo players to win a Stanley Cup championship.
The event began with 71-year old Reggie and 52-year old Jamie visiting the Eagle Lake First Nation community. Eagle Lake First Nation is where Reggie Leach’s biological mother is from — and the hockey legend of Philadelphia Flyers fame got to speak with some cousins as well as educate and mingle with the community.
Following the visit, father and son Leach met with members of the Ice Dogs and the two shared stories and gave the players advice from their time playing junior hockey.
The Dryden team hosted a meet and greet with the father/son pair where the Leach men relayed stories about playing hockey, and what they faced being Indigenous in the era of the game that they played.
“I think it is very important … it is an honour for us to be a part of this. I think one thing is that my dad doesn’t get enough credit as he was one of the first really high profile Indigenous players, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for that. My dad is the right guy to be here for this because he is so passionate about this cause. For me, I want to try to learn as much as I possibly can about Truth and Reconciliation and spread the word,” said Jamie Leach.
“I think it’s great! I’m always happy to do stuff with Jamie. The whole trip to Dryden … the Ice Dogs have done a wonderful job. To me, it is working together as one getting information out to everyone about the truth about Every Child Matters and Residential Schools. It is something we have to work and educate everyone on,” noted Reggie Leach, who now resides in northeastern Ontario on Manitoulin Island with his wife, Dawn.
Meanwhile, the Truth and Reconciliation game between Dryden and Thunder Bay was way more than just a junior hockey match.
“I think it is very important. It shows that we can work together as a unit even at a hockey game. I know everybody loves hockey, I know our First Nations people love the game of hockey. I am very proud of the Ice Dogs for getting them together and making it special for them,” noted Reggie Leach.
In Jamie Leach’s eyes, the importance of the game and the day long event was to start somewhere with educating people about Truth and Reconciliation.
“This is a start. Even when my dad and I do our talks, we know we are not going to reach everybody but we are hoping that one or two people hear us. In my mind this is kind of the same thing, let us start the conversation. The 500 plus in the building for the hockey game, hopefully we reach a few more and that this just keeps building, and building and building, like I said, it’s a start. Let’s try and maintain its growth.”
Reggie and Jamie also took part in a 30-minute impactful opening ceremony that included Little Feather Drummers, speeches, former Indigenous Ice Dogs players being honoured — and then concluding with a ceremonial puck drop.
The fans even got what they bargained for as Dryden and Thunder Bay needed overtime to settle the game, which was won by the visiting North Stars.
Final score and result aside, the main highlight and the purpose of the historic junior hockey event was Truth and Reconciliation.
“What is happening with our kids across the country is something that we have to bring out in the open. We just can’t just talk about it for a month or two, it has to be brought up and we have to educate people,” said Reggie Leach, who also took note of the racism that he experienced as a youngster.
“For myself growing up in Riverton, Manitoba in a Metis community, I really didn’t know anything about racism until I became a junior hockey player in Flin Flon and playing road games in Winnipeg. That was probably one of the worst racist towns I have ever been in when I was playing junior hockey and those are things that just have to stop. You know we are not going away. We have been here for hundreds of years. This is the thing about First Nations people, we don’t quit, we keep on going and it seems like we are getting stronger and stronger every year,” the legendary Leach summed up.