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Outside the Lines

Native Americans

Notah Begay, the only full-blooded Native American on the PGA Tour, draws upon a rich heritage.

A community debates whether to abandon the Native American nickname of its high school teams.

Former NHL coach Ted Nolan wants an all-native national hockey squad separate from Canada's team.


Chat wrap: PGA golfer Notah Begay

Chat wrap: Native American rights activist Suzan Shown Harjo


 Outside the Lines
Bill Eramus, who leads the effort for an all-native national team, says young players lack the resources necessary to succeed.
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 Gino Odjick
Islanders left winger Gino Odjick wants future natives to be recognized for their skills, not their fists.
wav: 258 k | Listen

 Craig Berube
Flyers right winger Craig Berube says natives are at a disadvantage.
wav: 48 k | Listen

 Kevin Tootoosis
Hockey school coordinator Kevin Tootoosis hopes to provide youngsters with an opportunity.
wav: 103 k | Listen

This three-day online series is a companion to the ESPN Outside the Lines television special on Native Americans and sports that originally appeared Nov. 16.

Tuesday, June 3
A team of their own
Tom Farrey

Former NHL coach of the year Ted Nolan has been out of the league for two years, waiting for the right opportunity to come his way. He even turned down a job offer from Tampa Bay because the franchise was in transition.

That meaningful situation might have finally arrived: An expansion team.

That's what comes to Nolan's mind when he talks about his new project, an effort by a group of Canadian Indians to put together an all-native program separate from the Canadian National Team. The players' eligibility, the headquarters, the name of the group -- none of that is in place yet.

But the possibilities are mesmerizing.

Chris Simon
Chris Simon of the Washington Capitals is one of the few North American natives to have made it to the NHL.

"We could really change things," said Nolan, who when he was with the Buffalo Sabres won the 1997 Jack Adams Trophy as the NHL's top coach. "We're not looking at developing a hockey machine. Some will make it to the NHL, sure, but that is not what this is all about."

Nolan, a member of the Ojibwa tribe, wants to put a team together as a motivational tool for young Native North Americans. Hockey is as popular on Indian reservations -- they are called reserves in Canada -- as the sport is elsewhere in the country, but disproportionately few natives end up advancing through the system to the Canadian National Team.

The belief of Nolan and others in his group is that an all-native national team would be a rallying point for a demoralized population whose kids are not staying in school. He cites the statistic as if he were recalling the career numbers of a Hall of Famer -- 63 percent of his people ages 15-47 do not have a high-school education.

Nolan was recruited into the effort in September by Phil Fontaine, chief of the Assembly of First Nations, a Canadian organization that represents members of the nation's tribes. Their primary goal is to start a feeder system that identifies top young talent and places the best players on national under-17, under-18 and under-20 teams that would compete internationally.

"We're really supportive of all of their initiatives," said Bob Nicholson, president of Canadian Hockey. "They could have such an impact on the youth."

A far more ambitious, and complicated, dream is having a First Nations team compete in the Olympics. That would not only require the support of the Canadian government but the International Olympic Committee, which would have to recognize a national Olympic committee representing Canada's native people.

The argument could be made that there is some precedent for allowing an all-native team made of Canadian citizens. Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have been allowed to compete on their own teams even though their athletes are U.S. citizens. In 1996, Palestine was invited by the IOC to compete as a nation in the Atlanta Games.

The Canadian government recognizes the right of its native people to govern themselves. Still, because of the political minefields that would come with getting into the Olympics, the First Nations group is primarily focused on creating a domestic feeder system for its top young players.

"We're quite concerned about the lack of quality players being introduced into the (elite) leagues," said Bill Erasmus, vice chief for the Assembly of First Nations. "Very few get the opportunity to play at a high level."

A handful of North American natives have made it to the NHL, among them Washington's Chris Simon, Philadelphia's Craig Berube, Atlanta's Denny Lambert and Chicago's Blair Atcheynum. But only one of them -- the New York Islanders' Gino Odjick -- grew up on a reserve, a fact that has not escaped Nolan, who serves as a consultant on the First Nations' youth hockey initiative.

Nolan, who has a summer residence on an Ontario reserve and for years has given clinics to native youth, said part of the problem is that most top young native Canadians do not have access to the coaching and training advantages that kids in more urban areas have.

The issue is compounded because the kids see the lack of native faces in the NHL and the Canadian team, he said. They begin to expect that their careers will go nowhere.

A national team of native Canadians could change all that, he argues.

"Our program would have a similar effect that the 1980 U.S. hockey team had in popularizing the sport," Nolan said. "I don't see more of our kids going into the sport because so many of them already play it. But it would raise expectations."

That isn't all that Nolan expects would be raised. Certain to be heard are groups, and possibly nations, that will contend that the native Canadians already have their own national team -- the Canadian National Team.

Nolan's response: "You have to look at all the rejection that we've gone through as a people." Besides, he said, "it's not like we're trying to separate from Canada."

Currently, only one native Canadian plays for one of Canada's national teams. That is Jordan Tootoo -- who wears No. 22, of course -- an Inuit on the under-17 squad.

However, Nolan suspects that with proper training and a national program designed to identify and develop young native Canadians, he could have the top team competing with the best in the world in a few years.

First Nations expects to announce its plans before the end of the year. One of the many decisions that has yet to have been made is who will coach the top teams, Erasmus said.

Nolan said the chance to lead his people into international competition fires him up more than any challenge he faced in the NHL.

"When all is said and done, people judge you on what you contributed to people's lives," he said. "Trophies are nice, but they don't talk back. I really miss the game, but to get this off the ground would be better than anything I could do in the league."

Tom Farrey (tom.farrey@espn.com) is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

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