Numerous Aboriginal players have honed their skills in the Western Hockey League (WHL) over the years.
Michael Ferland, Rene Hunter and Eric Roy are continuing that tradition this season.
All three Aboriginal players are members of the Manitoba-based Brandon Wheat Kings.
Ferland, an 18-year-old left winger, is in his second season with the Wheat Kings. He impressed enough during his rookie season in Brandon that he was also selected by the Calgary Flames in the fifth round, 133rd over-all, this past June at the National Hockey League Entry Draft.
As for Hunter, who is 17, and Roy, who only turned 16 on Oct. 24, both are rookie defencemen with the Wheat Kings.
Ferland enjoys the fact he has some Aboriginal teammates this season.
“They call us The Tribe,” he said of the good-natured ribbing the trio receive from other Brandon players. “And they call me Chief or the Leader of the Pack.”
Ferland said he does spend quite a bit of time away from the rink with both Hunter and Roy.
“We hang out a lot,” he said. “We go to the mall and movies together.”
Ferland, who is Cree, is the only one of the three Aboriginal players on the Wheat Kings’ roster that is actually from Brandon.
Hunter, who is Ojibway, is from Manitoba’s Ebb and Flow First Nation. And Roy, who is Métis, is from Beauval, Sask.
Ferland appeared in 61 games and registered 28 points (nine goals, 19 assists) during his rookie season with the Wheat Kings.
As for this season, Ferland has been hampered by some injuries. He tore his meniscus in his knee in September. And he also missed some matches due to a foot injury.
He only managed to play in 19 of the club’s first 35 games this season. When he did suit up, Ferland was able to contribute. He had 14 points, including five goals, in his 19 appearances.
Since he’s now in his second season with the Wheat Kings, Ferland said he’s trying to be a player that others look up to.
“I just want to be a leader on and off the ice,” he said.
Though he is an NHL draft pick, Ferland said he still has tons to prove. He has yet to be offered a pro contract, so is still trying to impress the Flames’ brass.
“For sure, I’m trying to get signed,” he said.
Besides helping out teammates whenever he can, Ferland said he’s also trying to be a role model in the community.
Brandon’s home games attract a large number of Aboriginal fans.
“There’s quite a few of them and I talk to them a lot,” Ferland said, adding he enjoys providing advice or inspiration to other young Aboriginal players.
As for Hunter, he spent the 2009-10 campaign with the Portage Terriers in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League, considered a step below the WHL.
He said he had an adjustment period earlier on this season, primarily while he tried to get accustomed to the speed and intensity levels of the WHL.
“Things are pretty good now,” he said.
Like Ferland, Hunter has also battled some injuries this season. Neck and groin injuries forced him to miss some contests.
Hunter said he had a pretty simple goal this season.
“I just want to play well,” said Hunter, who had four points, including one goal, in his first 32 matches.
Since the Wheat Kings had four returning defencemen, Hunter said he wasn’t quite sure whether he would even crack the Brandon roster this season. He’s now one of eight blueliners on the club.
Roy managed to earn a spot on the Wheat Kings’ roster even though he was just 15 when the season started. His season though has already had its ups and downs.
He too spent some time on the injured list as he suffered a concussion when he was hit from behind by an opponent during a game earlier in the year.
Even when he was fit to play, Roy was a healthy scratch for some games because of the number of defencemen the Wheat Kings carry. But he has been on the ice a bit more of late.
Roy spent the past two seasons playing midget AAA hockey in Prince Albert. So this actually marks the third year he’s been away from home.
“I’m kind of used to it now,” said Roy, who had four assists in his first 14 games in a Wheat Kings’ jersey.