There are escapes for the youth of Natuashish, actually ways for them to strive for a better life and future.
Donovan Rich and Sonny Gregoire are examples of how sport can put teenagers on the right path, but it is the two young men who deserve most all the credit.
The concept of sport being a beacon toward a better life is not a new one. There are many cases of professional athletes rising out of hard lives to reach the top, but countless less notorious examples of those who have seized opportunities.
The cases of substance abuse and struggles with depression and crime are common in the Labrador Innu community of Natuashish, where the Mushuau Innu First Nation live. Less known are the instances where people rise above the poverty and its related problems.
Rich and Gregoire found their reprieve at the hockey rink — one of the few treasures in the community where youth also struggle with boredom. It was there they met Juan Strickland, who left the Corner Brook Minor Hockey Association to try to build something in the community through hockey and life discipline.
For five years, they grew under his tutelage. As their skill advanced, so did their understanding of how to excel off the ice.
This year, Rich and Gregoire are residents of Corner Brook. They are guests in the home of Strickland — who now has the coaches and program in place in Natuashish to return home and to the Corner Brook Minor Hockey Association — and his wife Denise. They enrolled at Corner Brook Regional High, and were on the ice when the Dennis GM Western Kings major midget hockey team held their tryout.
Rich made the team as one of the top six defencemen. The 17-year-old’s skill and passion for the game is said to give him an edge over most players his age.
Gregoire was among the final cuts for the team, but remains with them as a practice player. The 16-year-old will be affiliated with the Kings, allowing him to continue working on his game and also be eligible for high school and minor hockey in Corner Brook.
The two young men sat at the kitchen table in the Strickland home this week. They were polite in their greeting, but shy throughout conversation. Language is a barrier — especially for Rich, who searched for help from Denise for the meaning to certain questions or phrases.
Leaving home, their family and friends, and the community that is pretty much all they have known was a difficult decision for both. Less than a month into their stay, they are already missing it.
However, both seem to have a sense that this is a life-changing decision.
“We want more hockey and more opportunity, and a better education, than in Natuashish,” Gregoire said.
Back home, due to geography and the associated costs, the guys were limited to just a couple of hockey tournaments a year. In Corner Brook, other than the jump in skill level, the number of games and tournaments will increase significantly.
It was still difficult to leave behind the only life they knew.
“Leaving my family and friends was hard,” Rich said. “It’s hard being away. It’s a change.”
Less than a month into the move, the guys are feeling accepted into the hockey community. The Kings players have made a conscious effort to include them in their activities, making sure they feel welcomed. It has been the same at high school, they said. Their peers and teachers have shown the same support and acceptance.
Gregoire has started to play some recreational hockey, and is awaiting the start of the school and minor programs too. The boys enjoyed playing other sports such as volleyball, badminton, and table tennis in Natuashish, but realize their schedules are just too hectic to take on any other extracurricular sports right now.
A Rich experience
Rich — a small, fast-skating defenceman — suited up for the Western Kings last weekend, helping the team earn a split at home against the Tri-Pen Osprey. He knew the level of hockey would be higher than he has been accustomed to, and a few weeks of intense practices had prepared him for it.
He confidently said he was pleased with his performance, but is expecting bigger things from himself as the year progresses.
“I am going to have to train harder,” he said. “I want to push myself.”
Sunny skies ahead
Gregoire also wants to get a chance to suit up for the Kings some day. If there are injuries or significant improvement in his game, he may get that chance this year. However, he is also contemplating his prospects of making the squad next season.
“You have to push yourself to play at a higher level,” he said. “You have to train yourself; get quicker, faster and stronger, and bigger.”
A‘Head’ of the game
Coach Angus Head had heard about Rich previously, he said, and had seen him at some hockey camps. It was enough for him to know he could be a valuable piece of the team looking to win a championship.
He is already among the teams top defencemen, according to the coach, and appears to be fitting in and well liked by his teammates. Being at the rink six of seven days a week helps with the transition and any feelings of missing home.
Rich’s skating is an asset to the team, said Head, helping with his adjustment to this level of hockey. He has no concerns trusting him to man the blueline, and said he was great in the first two games.
“I think he is only going to get better,” coach said. “He seems to improve every time we go on the ice.”
Gregoire doesn’t have the same skillset that Rich brings, said Head, but he recognizes potential in the player who would still be eligible to play next year. He said conditioning and skill improvement is required, but believes that message has gotten through to the player.
“He realizes the things he has to work on,” he said. “I’m sure, with a bit of tutoring from Juan and as time goes on, there’s no doubt he’ll get an opportunity.”
The pride Strickland has for what was accomplished in his five years in Natuashish is apparent in his voice. These are two of the prize pupils from his time there, but he gives them the credit for their own accomplishments.
A transition such as the one Rich and Gregoire have made to Corner Brook is something that had been discussed in recent years. The man with more than 30 years of coaching experience set the ground rules, but they followed them.
“I told them years ago, if they can keep themselves clean and they stay away from any substance abuse, if the opportunity presented itself, I would give them an opportunity to go play hockey at a higher level,” Strickland said. “They fulfilled their end of the bargain, and stayed committed to hockey, and I kept my word.”
The coach feels he has an eye for talent and, after 30-plus years, few would argue that point. He said Rich is the “real deal” when it comes to hockey, and it is his passion and motivation that makes that so.
“There’s a lot of time you can coach players that have skill and talent, but you can’t coach them the will to compete and the will to play hard,” he said. “Donovan has had that characteristic ever since I have known him.”
Gregoire has that same passion and motivation driving him, said Strickland, but his skill level is not as high. That has the potential to change though, according to the coach.
As much as he loves discussing hockey, these two young men are doing much more than just playing a game. They are showing a community that there is more to life than what many of the Innu population have grown accustomed to.
“Who knows, it might be inspiration for other kids in the community,” Strickland said. “If we practice hard, go to the rink, stay away from substance abuse; we might get an opportunity to go play hockey at a higher level.”
Along with that, Strickland credits the Western Kings for their efforts. He praised the family and friends of the two guys as well as the community leaders for allowing it to happen.
Rich and Gregoire did not have a lot to say outside of answering questions, but this is also an area they volunteered to talk about. They are very appreciative of the financial and emotional support they have received from family and throughout the community.
On and off the ice, they are passionate about proving it to be a good decision.