Throughout December, the NHL is spotlighting players and alumni of indigenous descent. We asked these men and women to reflect on how their indigenous heritage has influenced their identity as hockey players.
Today, Brigette Lacquette, who in 2018 became the first First Nations woman to play for Canada's Women's Olympic hockey team, discusses growing up in Manitoba, dealing with racial taunts on the ice and the life lessons she has learned through hockey.
Mallard, Manitoba, is a small Metis community, about four hours north of Winnipeg. The 2006 Canadian census says 120 people live in Mallard. Growing up there, I would say there were a lot fewer than that. We had a water pumphouse, a fire hall, a community office, houses for the community members -- and an outdoor rink that my dad built right outside of our house every winter.
My dad, Terrance, grew up in Mallard, while my mother, Anita, is from Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan. My parents started a family at a young age. They were married when my dad was only 19 and my mom 20. Within a year, they had my sister, Tara. I arrived a year later, followed four years later by my brother, Taran. It is safe to say my parents didn't grow up with a lot, but they knew that they wanted us to have a better life than what they had growing up. They knew what it was like to have nothing, so they always stressed school and, when we were old enough to play competitively, sports as a way out of Mallard and into the larger world.
As a Canadian kid growing up in a small community, there wasn't a lot to do other than get into trouble or play hockey. I played many sports growing up, but there was just something about hockey that made me love it more than the rest. Skating, shooting, stickhandling on the outdoor rink -- thinking back on it, I spent hours and hours out there. I couldn't get enough of it.
Eventually, I started playing organized hockey. I begged my dad to put me in hockey until he finally gave in and let me play. Because of a lack of players, my sister eventually started playing as well; she found a love for playing goalie. Living in isolated Mallard, the closest minor hockey association was about an hour away in Winnipegosis, Manitoba. Mom or dad would drive us back and forth from Winnipegosis twice a week. If they couldn't make the trip, one of my uncles stepped in to make sure we never missed a game. Hockey was a family affair.
One thing you learn while growing up in an indigenous home is values. An indigenous home means being raised by not just by your parents, but by your entire family -- uncles, aunts, grandmothers and grandfathers. Our first cousins weren't really cousins, they were our brothers and sisters. Aunts and uncles treated us like their own kids. Every one of them had a part in making me the woman I am today, and instilling in me the values I believe in. They taught me to be humble and to show humility in everything I do. They taught me the value of hard work. Hard work shows discipline, which is a valuable skill to possess. When I was growing up, working hard showed my parents that we wanted to be doing whatever we were doing, wherever we were doing it. They also taught me about taking care of your family. Part of having a family means taking care of your relations near and far, making sure they have a roof over their heads and food on their table, and ensuring that whoever is in your home is comfortable. They taught me always to lend a helping hand, with no questions asked.
As we grew older, practices became more frequent. It was nothing to have practice four times a week -- two practices in Gilbert Plains (which was almost two hours away from Mallard) and two practices in Winnipegosis. I started to improve, which got me playing on a triple A summer hockey team with my sister (Tara always seemed to have a knack for being a successful goalie). Playing summer hockey was also a turning point for me, because it was then that I experienced an event that would change my sports life forever.
We were playing in our first tournament, in Winnipeg. I was excited to have a chance to play in this tournament, but that's when an unexpected event occurred. I got into a shoving match with a girl in the corner -- nothing out of the normal for a hockey game. However, as we were skating back up the ice, she turned to me and said, "Get off me, you dirty Indian!"
I was completely shook. It was the first time I had ever encountered racism on the ice. I remember feeling every negative emotion -- anger, embarrassment, sadness. I cried because, well, I am a crier. I also didn't really know how to handle it.
As the game progressed, my dad (who was one of my coaches on the team) noticed something was off. He asked me what was wrong. I wasn't my usual self and I had some tears. At that point, I didn't even want to repeat what that girl had said to me, but finally I finally found the courage to tell him. The advice he gave me in response was so simple, but it still sticks with me today.
He told me, "Beat them on the ice." In other words: Be the better person, don't give in to those taunts, be so focused on yourself and your own success so that when they say things like that to you, it's a knock on them, not you.
I have carried that speech with me ever since. I've been called every name in the book since then, but I never let it get to me. That one simple piece of advice from my dad helped me turn that negative experience into a positive one.
Throughout the years, my on-ice skills continued to rapidly improve. I got invited to tryouts for high-performance teams like Team Manitoba. Even though I got cut the first time I tried out, I worked hard at my training for the next year and made the team on my second try. During that time, I was also invited to the Under-18 Team Canada. I was ecstatic -- I couldn't believe that they even knew who I was! I ended up making that team two years in a row; we came home with a silver, then gold. From there, I accepted a full ride scholarship to the University of Minnesota Duluth, where I played hockey for the Bulldogs while still participating in the Hockey Canada program. I made teams, I got cut from teams, but I always kept working hard and staying humble.
Eventually, I started to make the world championship rosters. I played in the 2015, 2016 and 2019 IIHF World Championships, as well as finally cracking the roster for the 2018 Canadian Women's Olympic Team. Bringing home that medal was one of the highlights of my life.
Hockey did open a lot of doors for me. It put me on the radar of the sports world and gave me the opportunity to move away from the small Metis community that I grew up in and make a name for myself. Even though I may not live in Mallard any more, the lessons I learned there are always in my heart. Every day I was at the Olympics, I couldn't help but wonder how my family was doing back home. I was texting them every day, sending them pictures, because I wanted to make sure that they knew that they were all a part of my experience. Playing in the Olympics wasn't just about me, or my teammates -- it was about my family as well, because they did everything they could to get me there. It was more than just "my" goal; it was "our" goal -- and we had finally made it.