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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 31, 2003 - Issue 88


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Alberta Native Skates Toward Pro Hockey

by Matt Ross Indian Country Today
credits: Photo by Matt Ross Indian Country Today

Lenny ThunderbirdALBERTA - Chosen 80th at the recent bantam Western Hockey League draft, 14-year old Lenny Thunderchild has taken his first step towards professional hockey.

The last pick of the fourth round, out of 229 players selected, Thunderchild, from Lloydminster, Alberta is now the property of the Lethbridge Hurricanes in the WHL, which falls under the national Canadian Hockey League (CHL) umbrella. For players who have aspirations of pro hockey careers, the CHL route is the preferred choice with more than half of the present players in the National Hockey League (NHL).

More so than the other three major sports (basketball, football and baseball), following a hockey dream often requires more sacrifices at an earlier age. Whereas the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is geared for student-athletes after high school, some hockey players as young as 16 will be involved in a full-time athletic program, including extensive bus travel, for a 72-game schedule for more than six months per year while maintaining a high school, or for the older players, a college education.

In order to prepare for the rigors of this hectic lifestyle, Thunderchild moved away from home in Lloydminster and billeted with a family at the age of 13. Enrolled in a more competitive hockey program in Edmonton, the "AAA" Bantam Strathcona Warriors, Thunderchild’s performance captured the eyes of many junior scouts this season. While seven out of the league’s 20 franchises contacted the defenseman prior to the draft, Lethbridge made Thunderchild its fourth pick on May 1.

That Thunderchild is heading to the "W" isn’t a surprise to him because in a mock draft conducted over the Internet, it was predicted he would be chosen late in the first-round. Although he supposedly dropped more than 60 picks, the d-man isn’t at all slighted.

"I knew there were a lot of good players out there so I didn’t think I would be that high," Thunderchild said who finished just his sixth year in the sport. Most of his contemporaries though will have been playing for a decade, starting to lace up the skates at 3 or 4 years old.

At 6’2", Thunderchild’s frame is a definite asset and besides his size, he netted 39 points for the Warriors in 34 games. He also showed some offensive versatility when about half of his points came on the power play as he was moved from the blueline to be stationed in front of the goal. Ranked second in points for defensemen in the Alberta Major Bantam Hockey League, Thunderchild was a significant reason why Strathcona finished with a 25-6-5 mark and third in the regular season.

"He’s a big kid and a very good skater," said Randy Maxwell, Hurricane assistant general manager, about why the team chose Thunderchild. "For 14 years of age, we see a huge upside."

Those credentials also include a physical style in Thunderchild’s play, a requisite for someone with his height.

"On the ice I’m totally different because if the game’s close, I’m a mean guy pushing people around but off the ice, I’m not mean to anybody," Thunderchild soft-spokenly said. He did although amass 159 penalty minutes, third in the league.

While it’s natural for those drafted into the WHL to be thinking of a career as a professional athlete, it is only a first step. League rules dictate a player can’t be on the roster full-time until he’s 16 which means Thunderchild will return to Edmonton next year and move up to the "AAA" Midget level. It also means once again leaving his family behind.

Though at 13 to billet in a bigger city appears intimidating, that’s the usual requirement for burgeoning hockey players from smaller towns. For Thunderchild’s parents, Lester and Rhonda, they believe this move has its positive elements, even outside of athletics.

"To improve you have to leave home," Lester said about both sports and life. "You’ll mature quicker and become more confident and that will be beneficial when they’re older."

But life away from home isn’t a party without rules or discipline. Thunderchild knows he has to remain focused with his stick and the books, and not necessarily in that order. The WHL emphasizes and mandates all of its players maintain respectable grades.

"If I’m improving more, they’ll keep my spot. But if I don’t keep up my skills or my marks, they’ll drop me," Thunderchild said about what he needs to continue next year.

Still, from a distance, his parents can maintain a watchful eye.

"Even though he goes to school away, if his marks drop, we’ll check with his billet and his teachers," his dad said.

Should he eventually make the squad, Thunderchild will have support on the road. He has relatives in five of the cities where there are other teams and it’s likely he will stay with a cousin in Lethbridge. These family ties were evident when he returned home over the weekend following the draft and 30 people were there for a barbeque, a figure one cousin remarked was about 1/16 the size of the entire Thunderchild clan.

Family home cooking will be appreciated considering the amount of time spent on the bus. The league is spread out more than 1,000 miles east to west through four provinces, the state of Washington and Portland, Ore. Thunderchild admits he doesn’t get much shut-eye on the bus, especially after an incident last year with the bantams.

"I don’t trust anybody when I sleep because when we went to Cold Lake, even though I knew what was going to happen, I was shaving creamed," he said about some of the hijinks that occurs during road trips.

Thunderchild will attend Lethbridge’s expanded fall tryouts where he will get a glimpse of the speed and strength of the players, some as old as 20, others with NHL experience.

"Hopefully he’ll stay in the main camp and play in the exhibitions in order to be ready to play in the WHL," said Maxwell about what bantams can usually expect. It’s also possible for 15-year olds to play in five regular season games in the WHL.

There is also a gamble players take when opting for the WHL as once they have a spot on the team, they are required to sign player and education contracts, which immediately makes them ineligible for the NCAA. Players do receive stipends of a couple of hundred dollars a month, monies that makes them professional athletes in the rules of the American colleges and universities.

Still, as Maxwell points out, every player upon leaving the WHL is entitled to a year of post-secondary tuition paid for by the league for every year of service. In Lethbridge itself, there is both a college and university and the Hurricanes, under their own agreement with those schools, have their players’ education paid for, should they choose to attend part-time. This is over and above the WHL’s "education pension" plan. Plus, graduating WHL players are eligible to play in Canada’s university hockey for another five years, again, should they want.

All of the possibilities can certainly be overwhelming for any 14-year old. Exuding confidence, Thunderchild stated that as he enters a new phase within the realm of competitive hockey and the numerous options he’s facing, there is always a little bit of doubt that creeps in.

"You don’t think it will happen this early and then you’re left wondering if you should take it," Thunderchild said about the WHL. "But it’s likely that I will because it’s once-in-a-lifetime."

Alberta, Canada

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