The power of sport: Ted Nolan uses hockey to empower Indigenous youth

Ted Nolan’s path to an NHL coach of the year award, a QMJHL championship with the Moncton Wildcats, and the 2014 Olympic Games started one pail of water at a time. 

Growing up in the Garden River First Nation near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., he fell in love with the sport of hockey after watching his brothers play. 

So he got to work with his pail. 

“I tell this to kids everywhere I go. I made a rink in the backyard one pail of water at a time. And it’s like anything in life. It’s one day at a time, one step at a time. And eventually, I made a sheet of ice,” Nolan said. 

WATCH | Hit the ice with the three Nolans:

Ted Nolan and sons — all NHL vets — empower Indigenous youth through hockey

Ted Nolan and his sons Brandon and Jordan, who all played in the NHL, now use their talents to help Indigenous youth across Canada reach their full potential.

Recently, he and his two sons were sharing their experiences, wisdom and skills with youth from Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick. Brandon and Jordan Nolan also played at hockey’s highest level, with Jordan being on Stanley Cup winning teams in 2012, 2014 and 2019.

3 men and two women pose for a photo in front of a colourfully painted wall.
Brandon, Jordan and Ted Nolan posed for photos before speaking to the community. ‘These guys are icons across all First Nations in Canada,’ said Jonathon Solomon. (Lane Harrison/CBC)

On Dec. 19 and 20, through their hockey school 3|NOLANS, they hosted two skills and drills sessions at the Keswick Valley Arena and held a talk for the community in Kingsclear First Nation. 

Nolan is no stranger to New Brunswick. His wife’s mother is from St. Mary’s First Nation — where 3|NOLANS held one of its first sessions in 2014 — and he coached the Moncton Wildcats in 2005. 

Jonathon Solomon, the community event co-ordinator for Kingsclear, said having the Nolans in the community was special.

“These guys are icons across all First Nations in Canada. And to have these guys here is a huge opportunity for the community,” he said. 

The kids enjoyed it, too. 

“I think it’s super cool that I get to learn off of them,” said Lane Vannorden, who attended the 12-and-up skate on Dec. 20. “Sometimes I get to teach them stuff, but not very often, because they’re better.” 

A pre-teen in hockey gear smiles and looks into the camera.
Kids got a chance to skate with the Nolans for two hours on Dec. 19 and 20. (Ed Hunter/CBC)

Being a ‘beacon of light’ for youth

The idea for the hockey school was Brandon’s, who worked in Ontario’s Ministry of Indigenous Affairs after his pro-career was cut short by injury. Brandon thought he, his brother and father could contribute to the development of Indigenous youth. 

And while the three Nolans have more hockey knowledge than they could teach in two days, the hockey school is about a lot more than getting pucks in the back of the net. 

“I don’t coach to inspire [them] to be a National Hockey League player,” Ted Nolan said. 

“You just inspire [them] to be the best person [they] can be, whether they grow up to be carpenters or police officers or nurses or doctors or whatever they choose.”

Two men sit and a third stands between them during a speech.
During a talk with the community, the Nolans shared the challenges they’ve experienced throughout their careers, and how they overcame them. (Lane Harrison/CBC)

It’s also about making kids feel welcome in a way he didn’t as a child.

When Nolan had his first hockey practice, he didn’t have hockey gloves. He cut two of his fingers and needed stitches. But while he waited for someone to pick him up from the rink, no one seemed concerned. 

“Not one parent or one coach ever walked by and said, ‘Hey, how you doing? How are you feeling?’ Not once,” Nolan said.

“So I just really wanted to be that, that beacon of light for some of the kids who are playing this sport.” 

Ted Nolan signs a kid's jersey with a sharpie.
The Nolans stayed after the skate to sign jerseys, sticks and hats. (Lane Harrison/CBC)

Demonstrating what’s possible

As a teenager, Nolan moved from home to Kenora, Ont., to play in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League. 

“Literally, I thought I was going to Disney World,” he said. “I thought I was going to have the greatest time of my life.” 

But when he arrived, he found the opposite.

“It was the first time I really faced serious racism — name-calling, bullying, fighting,” he said. Something he would deal with long after his time in Kenora.

Though his sons didn’t face racism to the same extent Nolan did, they still had to leave home at an early age to chase their dreams of pro hockey. 

A close up of the ring, it is filled with diamonds making up the Los Angeles Kings's logo.
A fan holds one of two Stanley Cup rings Jordan Nolan won with the Los Angeles Kings. Nolan was also a member of the 2019 Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues. (Lane Harrison/CBC)

Now they’re using their experience to inspire “the kids in our communities that sometimes don’t see hope,” said Nolan. “And sometimes don’t think they could fight through that homesickness. But here you got someone who looks like them, who went through the same thing that they’re going through.”

When it comes to showing Indigenous youth that anything is possible, Nolan points to himself as an example.

“If this little skinny Ojibway kid from Garden River First Nation could play in the National Hockey League, boy oh boy, anybody can do anything.”

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