William Douglas has been writing The Color of Hockey blog for the past seven years. Douglas joined NHL.com in March and will be writing about people of color in the game. Today, as part of the NHL's celebration and observation of Indigenous culture, he profiles Kennesha Miswaggon, Carrigan Umpherville and Saige McKay, players from remote Cross Lake, Manitoba, who are playing women's college hockey this season in Vancouver and Long Island.
Inspirational hockey players just keep coming straight out of Cross Lake.
Kennesha Miswaggon, Carrigan Umpherville and Saige McKay, all from the Pimicikamak Cree Nation in northern Manitoba, are playing elite-level women's college hockey this season.
They are following a path traveled by Brady Keeper, a defenseman who played NCAA Division I hockey at the University of Maine and became the first person from the Pimicikamak Cree Nation to reach the NHL when he debuted with the Florida Panthers in March.
Now Miswaggon, Umpherville and McKay are inspiring their community as they climb hockey's ladder.
"It's like huge," said Brigette Lacquette, who became the first woman of indigenous heritage to play hockey for Canada in the Olympics at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang. "It gives hope to young female athletes and children that they can play hockey at the university level. It doesn't matter where you came from, it takes hard work and perseverance."
Miswaggon, 18, is a freshman defenseman at the University of British Columbia and was among a group of First Nations female players featured in the television documentary series "Hit The Ice," which airs on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN).
Right wing Carrigan Umpherville and defenseman Saige McKay are freshmen at Long Island University, a suburban New York school that launched its NCAA Division I women's hockey program this season.
"It's really an amazing thing, honestly," Miswaggon said. "I didn't expect to come this far growing up, coming from a small community. You don't expect to get an opportunity, so just having my best friends go out to the states and me to the West Coast, it's really crazy."
Miswaggon won the most valuable player Award at the 2019 Aboriginal Hockey Championships and received the Female Aboriginal Athlete Award from the Manitoba Sports and Recreational Council in April. She played for Team Manitoba in the 2019 Canada Winter Games and attended the Canadian women's national team's Under-18 selection camp in 2018-19.
Ryerson University coach Lisa Haley, who was an assistant on Canada's gold medal-winning team at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, said Miswaggon has Team Canada potential.
"Her skills are above and beyond others in her age group, there's no question about it," said Haley, who coached Miswaggon for two weeks for the 'Hit The Ice' shows. "If she wants it, she's got the ability. It definitely gets tougher as you go --- there's only 23 spots on that national team and there are a lot of young women that chase after [them] -- but she certainly has the skill level to be in that conversation."
Umpherville, 18, is LIU's leading scorer through 15 games with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists), including two goals and an assist in a 7-3 home win against Franklin Pierce on Saturday. She led her high school team, Pilot Mound Academy in Manitoba, in scoring with 42 points (23 goals, 19 assists) in 48 games last season.
"She's incredibly gifted on the offensive side and does such a great job of what appears to be nothing and turning it into something of a scoring chance for us," LIU coach Rob Morgan said. "[We're] trying to get her to work a little bit harder in the defensive side of the game, but it's coming. She's definitely got the potential to be one of the best players in Division I, I believe."
McKay, 17, is a smooth-skating defenseman who played with Umpherville at Pilot Mound Academy and was a nominee for the Canadian School Sport Hockey League's top defenseman award in the female varsity division.
"To compare [her] to [an NHL] player, it would be a little [Brian] Rafalski from back in the Detroit Red Wings days," Morgan said. "She's an undersized D but she's very creative, sees the ice well and can make the good first pass out of the zone. She also has offensive upside."
McKay, Umpherville and Miswaggon said playing college hockey is a dream come true. But each acknowledges that the adjustment hasn't always been easy.
Umpherville was accustomed to being one of the best scorers on the ice back home. She got a reality check when LIU played two home games against the University of Wisconsin, the top-ranked NCAA Division I women's team.
"I learned that there's so much talent," said Umpherville, who scored an unassisted goal in LIU's 10-2 loss on Oct. 18. Wisconsin won the 12-0 the following day. "Coming here and playing Wisconsin, they were good as a team and they had skilled players. It was kind of tough to keep up with them."
Still, the trio from Cross Lake aspire to take their talents -- and message -- beyond college hockey. They would like to play for the Canadian national team, and perhaps professionally. They would also like to follow in Lacquette's footsteps and become symbols of hope for First Nations youth -- especially those in Cross Lake, a reserve 10 hours north of Winnipeg that has experienced difficult times in recent years.
Five teenagers committed suicide in 2016 and 140 others attempted to do so in the weeks that followed, prompting officials in Cross Lake to declare a state of emergency.
"I want to get better and maybe do what Brigette Lacquette does, how she goes around the country giving speeches at hockey schools, specifically for native people," McKay said. "I want to show them that we're not so different from other people, that we can do whatever we set our minds on."
Lacquette said McKay and her friends don't have to wait to become role models.
"They already are," she said. "They're huge role models back home on their reserve, which is awesome to see."