Local Indigenous Girls Hockey leader finalist for NHL community award

By Steve Gow

Cole Harbour’s Ryan Francis has been named as one of three finalists for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award.

Intended to recognize individuals who use hockey as a way to build character, develop life skills and improve communities through the sport, Francis is the only Canadian on the finalist ballot.

“I was definitely very surprised when I got named one of the three finalists,” admits the 27-year-old nominee, who is being singled out for his participation in launching the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program — an initiative aimed at assisting and providing access to young girls who want to play the sport.

Launched in 2020, the program has been introduced in Truro, Membertou First Nation and Eskasoni First Nation.

As a longtime Mi’kmaw hockey player, whose experience includes playing for Team Atlantic at the National Aboriginal Championships as well as coaching, Francis helped start the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program through partnerships with such institutions as Hockey Nova Scotia and Hockey Canada.

“I thought that there was a really great opportunity (which would) lead to helping Indigenous girls to experience hockey,” recalls Francis, who is also the Indigenous Visiting Fellow at Saint Mary’s University.

“It began as a conversation that I had with Hockey Nova Scotia and as we started to talk through about what it could look like and what it may look like, more and more partners and people came to the table, and it grew from this small conversation into a larger program with a lot of wonderful partners, (and) it grew into what it is today.”

The program continues to grow. Just finishing its successful third year, the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program has provided access to the sport for nearly 200 girls.

“2020 and 2021 — we were at three locations and 190 unique participants (went) through the program, and 55 percent of the girls were new to hockey, which I think was really neat,” adds Francis, adding that the pandemic did cause some disruptions in the latest season.

“It’s actually interesting — all three of our years have been impacted by COVID,” continues Francis. “But certainly there’s been the interest and the excitement around the program, so were excited to move forward and look at ways to expand and improve the program.”

Francis admits he would be surprised if the nomination for the esteemed Willie O’Ree Award didn’t help boost the program’s profile. Then again, for Francis, receiving the honour in the first place came as a bit of a shock.

It began months ago when a friend reached out with the proposition to apply for the annual community award dedicated in name to O’Ree — who became the groundbreaking first Black athlete in the NHL when he played for the Boston Bruins in 1958.

“I was really honoured that he thought of me that way and sort of gave him permission to submit (my name), not thinking it would go anywhere,” recalls Francis. Just as he had forgotten the conversation, he received an email notifying him he had been shortlisted as a semi-finalist. “Again, I still didn’t think it would go anywhere,”

Eventually, Francis found himself called to what he thought was going to be a work-related meeting.

“I showed up and there was the NHL surprising me with a video from Mr. O’Ree himself notifying me.”

Now among a trio of deserving finalists, Francis says online fan voting — which remains open to the public until April 17 — could play a part in whether or not he is named as the winner.

“Honestly, to be thought of in this way is really special, and something that I’ll always feel undeserving and I feel very grateful for,” says Francis of the nomination. “I think more importantly though, the attention and exposure that it brings to the program and the work that I’m fortunate to be a part of is definitely what matters.”

To vote or for more information on the Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, visit the website.

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