An Interview with Tracie Leost: Player, coach, activist

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Tracie Léost is one of Canada’s burgeoning activists. In 2015, at the age of 16, she ran 115 km in four days to raise funds and awareness about the plight of missing and murdered Indigenous women. As a track athlete who has won three bronze medals under the Métis flag at the North American Indigenous Games, her running shoes provided her with “the opportunity to give silence a voice.” The run was called The Journey of Hope, and was, in large part, a reaction to, then Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper’s statement that missing and murdered Indigenous women were not a high priority for the Canadian government. The message of the run was then transformed into a music video for Cass McComb’s song, “Run Sister Run,” and a Vogue article. For her tireless activism, Léost has been named a 2018 Indspire Award recipient, “the highest honour bestowed on indigenous peoples.” But while others have highlighted Léost for her activism and running prowess (and rightly so), she also grew up a ringette and hockey player, and continues to give back by coaching. I managed to wrangle a few email answers out of her busy schedule, so here is a look at Tracie Léost – the hockey player and coach.

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Tracie Léost at age 16 ran from Oak Point, Man., to The Forks in Winnipeg to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women. (Photo from CBC)

How old were you when you started playing hockey and tell us about your hockey career?

I started skating when I was three and began playing ringette at the age of 4. Hockey didn’t come into my life until later but I continued playing ringette for 15 years. I always watched hockey, all my friends played hockey, and we played mini sticks all the time. When I was in middle school  I took part in a program called Road to Gold. It’s a hockey camp for Indigenous youth. For 50 dollars it’s a week-long camp with two on-ice sessions and a dryland training per day. I continued playing with this program until I aged out, I played hockey at the outdoor rink every winter, and played high school hockey.

Who were your hockey idols growing up?

I always looked up to Jordin Tootoo, an Indigenous man who has beaten all odds and has fought hard for everything he has. My personal favorite is TJ Oshie and I’ve been cheering for him for 5 or 6 years now. Something about how family oriented he is, and that above everything his girls come first. I think a lot of people get carried away with their careers and dreams and very few prioritize their family. We saw it when the Capitals won the Stanley Cup, the first thing he talked about was his wife and kids, and then his dad.

What is your take on the NHL’s role in protecting it’s players from head trauma? What do you think (if anything) needs to change to protect future players?

My hockey career ended in grade 12 after suffering 3 concussions in a year, the last being from a hit on the ice. My doctor immediately suggested I take the time to think about what my future of hockey and ringette would look like and it if was worth continuing to risk my health. It was tough to hear because I spent my whole life in rinks across the province and if it wasn’t me playing I was always cheering on my friends. You never had to question where I was because if I didn’t have a game or a practice you would always find me at the Red River [outdoor rink], or eating canteen 5 cent candies and watching my friends at the Maples arena. After many weeks laying in my room in the dark, wearing sunglasses and earplugs in public, many hours spent at the concussion clinic taking the memory quizzes, and never being able to remember anything, I knew it was time to prioritize my health and I haven’t played a competitive game of hockey since. With that being said, I believe the NHL needs to protect their players, and by protect I mean protect their health so when someone suffers a concussion they aren’t forced to play through it or rush back without proper healing. In order for players to be protected their needs to be a shift in the general mindset. If this shift occurs players also wouldn’t hide the truth and would take the proper time to recover fully.

Brigette Lacquette made headlines during the Pyeongchang Games for being the first First Nations player on the women’s Olympic team. Can you talk a bit about what that might mean for the next generation of Indigenous women hockey players? Why do you think there has been so little Indigenous representation on either national team?

Simply put, Brigette Lacquette has brought hope to Indigenous people across our nation, especially youth. She brings hope to Indigenous people because they see themselves in her, and when they see the potential and success in her it makes them hopeful. There is so little Indigenous representation on either national team because sometimes the barriers society sets for Indigenous people make it feel impossible; when your country discriminates against you it feels impossible. We lack the resources and support needed to get Indigenous athletes to the next level. If you live in an isolated community, you’re using second-hand equipment, have an inadequate rink and gym, how can these athletes grow? Not to mention that Indigenous people are still healing from years of trauma. Just because Indigenous people haven’t been represented on either team doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The national teams can build relationships in Indigenous communities, they can host camps so players can grow, they can help fundraise for adequate supplies, and more importantly, every day they can show Indigenous young people that they can do it too. For many, surviving is about breaking barriers in their everyday life. Being a successful athlete is only another barrier for Indigenous people in Canada — a barrier we must break.

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Brigette Lacquette. Photo from Hockey Canada.

Generally speaking, do those who compete in Indigenous specific hockey tournaments/leagues hope to make it to the NHL or is there a preference to stay outside the system?

I can’t speak for anyone, but a majority of hockey players dream of playing in the NHL. Players come to tournaments with jerseys, hats, and sweatshirts of their favourite NHL teams. Again, I can’t speak for everyone but the way I see it, if your dream was to play in the NHL it’s not an opportunity you would turn down. A large part of being Indigenous is belonging to a community, and a very important part of that is representing your community. [Making it to the NHL] is not only incredible for the individual themselves but for the community as well.

Tell us about your work coaching and what it means to you.

People always ask how, after spending 15 years on the ice and being out there every day, I could just walk away from the game I love. The truth is, I haven’t walked away. I am still as involved with hockey as I was before concussions took the game from me. When I moved to Regina to attend university, I moved entirely alone only knowing two people there. One day, on my way to class, I stumbled upon a volunteer opportunity to be a hockey coach with the Outdoor Hockey League (OHL). I immediately signed up and have been involved ever since. The OHL offers free-of-charge recreational opportunities for families who are unable to participate in traditional, organized sports. All equipment is provided, thereby eliminating the need for hard-to-afford purchases like helmets, pads, and skates. Just like when I played, it’s more than just a game.

My role is being a coach and mentor for all youth involved and a majority of the youth involved are Indigenous youth in care. Coming to the rink is a safe space for kids and even it it’s just a few nights each week, it’s a few nights of having fun and reminding youth that they have a purpose; that they too can be just like Brigette Lacquette. Being a coach is extremely important for me because it’s a positive space for youth who are often forgotten about by the rest of the world. I love every part of what I do because every time we’re on the ice I don’t look in those kids eyes and see hardships, I get to see potential.

If people want to get involved with the Outdoor Hockey League or support the organization, what can they do?

There are a few ways people can help out the Outdoor Hockey League (OHL). The first is that the OHL is run out of the Sport Venture Library and this building [survives] on donations only. Like a library of books, SVL is full of all kinds of sporting equipment. Anyone can borrow any of the equipment and the only thing needed is a return date. The equipment here is what our athletes use through the OHL and we dress roughly 400 kids a year. Donating hockey equipment or any sports equipment is greatly appreciated. If you’re a local in Regina you can always volunteer as a coach, and if hockey isn’t your sport there are many other leagues you can’t take part in. If you live in Regina, a very simple way to contribute to the OHL is by getting the Sport Venture Library’s CO-OP number and every time you get gas you can use this number and every year that money gets donated to our sports leagues.

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