Hockey legend encourages First Nations youth to work hard, be persistent

February 20, 2013 - 4:51pm
Ted Nolan spoke at the "Future of First Nations Education" forum in Regina.  Patrick Book/CJME News
Ted Nolan spoke at the "Future of First Nations Education" forum in Regina. Patrick Book/CJME News

"I don't believe in the word 'can't.' I never did and I probably never will. "

That was the central theme of a the keynote address at the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations' "Future of First Nations Education" forum in Regina Wednesday. Former NHL hockey player and coach Ted Nolan gave the speech to more than 100 people gathered in the atrium at the First Nations University of Canada, relaying his experiences in hockey and how they can help advance education among Aboriginal people.

Nolan played three years in the NHL before finding larger success as a coach. After taking the helm of the Buffalo Sabres, he manage to get the team to a divisional championship in 1996/1997. That year he was awarded the Jack Adams Award, given each year to the league's top coach. He has coached other NHL teams since then, as well as American Hockey League squads. He currently coaches Latvia's national men's hockey team, which recently qualified for the next Winter Olympics. He also has a charitable foundation named after him which gives scholarships to hundreds of First Nations youth every year.

Nolan has also spent much of the last decade as a motivational speaker, giving speeches like the one he gave Wednesday to First Nations youth, organizations, and events all over North America.

"I really wanted to get a message out to a lot of people," Nolan said in the speech. "There's going to be certain times in your life that you're unable to do things. That doesn't mean you can't; it just means you need to learn how to."

Nolan explains that's the story of his life. He grew up on the Garden River Ojibway First Nation in Ontario, near Sault St. Marie. He had 10 siblings and his father died when he was still young. He remembered back to when he was a kid, creating his own rink on the reserve bucket by bucket, just because he wanted to play. The family couldn't afford new hockey equipment; when Nolan played he often had to wear skates two sizes too big. He admits he couldn't even skate properly and didn't begin playing in organized leagues until he was a teenager.

"I wasn't that good of a skater. I wasn't the biggest guy in the world; I wasn't the toughest guy. I couldn't even shoot a puck and I couldn't cross my feet -- you know those cross-overs you have to do -- I couldn't cross my right foot over my left to do proper circles so I just turned and darted. I skated as hard as I could. I told (my son) this and he said, 'Well how the heck did you ever make it anyway ?' And I made it because I really wanted to."

Nolan says he had a tough road to the NHL. When he started playing junior hockey at 16, his teammates were starting fights with him every night in training camp. He says it was hard and his family wanted him to just go home and stop punishing himself. But, Nolan insists, by following four rules he made it through. It was those same four rules he called on the 150-plus people in attendance Wednesday to consider following to help improve education in Saskatchewan for First Nations people: be willing to work as hard as you can, never stop trying even if you fail at first, make good decisions, and believe in yourself and what you're trying to do.

"If it's something you really want to do (like improving education) decision-making and doing the right things is probably as important as having the ability itself," he stressed in closing his speech.

Nolan feels that's the lesson First Nations youth, educators, even Chiefs should be living by: not to let the first taste of failure stop them in their tracks and to keep learning how to make things better.