The groundbreaking nation-wide coverage of a National Hockey League (NHL) game in Plains Cree was a one-off. But that March 2019 broadcast went so well the team at Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN) decided to do more.
Over the past five years, APTN has offered Hockey Night in Canada in Cree for up to six regular season NHL games to speakers of the language – and to all Canadians.
“We decided it was worth doing again,” recalled John Chabot, who does studio analysis for the live broadcasts.
The first show – a match-up between Montreal and Carolina – was broadcast from Enoch Cree Nation. The faces behind the camera had one day of pre-game training.
"Enoch was our second kick at the can. Nobody but me had any TV experience. We were running through the program, and it was, oh my gosh, this is going to go off the rails here. And it just went so naturally," he said.
Others answered a nation-wide casting call for Plains Cree speakers. From Saskatchewan, play-by-play commentator Clarence Iron also calls Indigenous hockey tournaments in Cree, and Jason Chamakese, a musician and Cree language educator, is from Pelican Lake First Nation.
Chamakese provides game analysis alongside Chabot, while Earl Wood, one of the founders of the Juno-award winning Northern Cree drumming group, is the host.
“Clarence, he has a good hockey voice, he carried the game very well. Jason and Earl had no TV experience but fit right in. It was an interesting dynamic,” said Chabot, noting the learning-curve has been quite hilarious at times.
“Cree is very descriptive. They were asking each other, how should I describe a puck, or icing? Then they’ll start describing the puck and start laughing, because the word becomes so long. A little change in a word changes the whole meaning,” Chabot said.
“You can only imagine what this means to young Indigenous boys and girls, wondering how to go about learning their ancestral language. They can watch their language be a living part of society,” said Mike Omelus, executive director of content and strategy for APTN.
He emphasizes APTN is not a sports channel but an Indigenous broadcaster, with a mandate for language cultivation and education.
“This is not just about covering the NHL, reporting the trades or when a player is sidelined by injury. This is about revitalization of Indigenous languages. Jason is recognized as a Cree speaking authority on the language, he provides resources and puts that up on the screen,” said Omelus, giving credit to the four presenters who have to travel long distances, and to Sportsnet which hooks up live games to APTN’s control room at their studios in Winnipeg.
“To go to Winnipeg, Clarence has to drive five hours from his community in northern Saskatchewan, and then take a flight from Calgary to Winnipeg. They are so committed and so passionate,” said Omelus.
“This is a collaboration between both networks. Rogers and Sportsnet have been a tremendous partner.”
For Chabot, who travels to far flung communities to give motivational talks and lead youth hockey camps with his First Assist charity, the language element is inspirational for Indigenous speakers.
The nationally broadcast show bridges hockey to its historical precursor in Mi’kmaq culture, and he feels it’s a fitting tribute to Canada’s first nations and part of the path to reconciliation.
“On my travels to the north I get a lot of requests to ‘do it in our language’, in Inuktitut or Dene. I tell them, send in your resumé with you calling your game in your language,” he said. “It really is reconciliation. It will help both nations come together, improve the forgiving and the conversation. It has to happen on both sides.”
Viewership of Hockey Night in Canada in Cree has been steadily increasing, and the hope is that it continue for the 2023/24 season.
“People from Indigenous communities are sending in emails and texts, saying they thought it would never happen,” said Chabot. “We have many more youth speaking their language than in my generation. I think that’s very important.”
Watch how Hockey Night in Canada in Cree is breaking new ground at https://www.aptntv.ca/hockey/videos/.