by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com
“I think it’s important to know where you come from and who you are as a person. I’m proud to be First Nations.”
The list of Ahtahkakoop First Nation players to skate in the National Hockey League is limited to basically Fred Sasakamoose, who played 11 games with the Chicago Blackhawks during the 1953-54 season and is recognized by the Hockey Hall of Fame as the first native Canadian player in the NHL.
Tampa Bay Lightning 2020 draftee Jaydon Dureau is one of a handful of young Ahtahkakoop players working diligently to change that.
Dureau is Cree from Ahtahkakoop First Nation from his mother’s side, growing up off reserve. His mom, Nora Madill, is Cree as is his Kohkom, which translates to grandma in Cree.
“I’m really proud where I’ve come from,” Dureau said. “I think it’s important to know where you come from and who you are as a person. I’m proud to be First Nations.”
The Ahtahkakoop reserve is about four-and-a-half hours north of Dureau’s home in White City, Saskatchewan.
Dureau’s grandparents on his mother’s side were in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, his Kohkom the first female indigenous person on the force he says.
“She was a huge role model for me,” Dureau said. “Normally, you don’t really have someone in your family that’s the first of something. She had to break a lot of barriers of course, battled racism and being a female and always told you can’t do this. I’m really proud of her. She overcame a lot.”
Dureau said both his parents are police officers too.
“There’s no messing up in my house,” he said, laughing.
As a child, Dureau lived on different reserves throughout Saskatchewan as his mom was doing her teaching practicum for university. He remembers taking classes on the reserve at four and five years old.
Even as his family established roots in White City and hockey took him to different teams across Saskatchewan and eventually the United States, from Weyburn to Notre Dame in Wilcox – where Lightning head coach Jon Cooper and defenseman Braydon Coburn both attended – to Saskatoon and Regina and, most recently, Portland, Oregon, Dureau remains connected to his First Nations heritage.
In addition to coaching his sister Danika’s hockey team while he’s home in White City, Dureau helped run a camp for local, predominantly First Nations kids a couple hours away in Yorkton. He plays spring hockey for First Nations teams.
The family makes a point of going to Ahtahkakoop at least once a year to visit aunts and uncles and cousins. They try to do an extended trip in August, although this year’s was scrapped because of COVID-19.
“I get a lot of support from them,” Dureau said. “I try and get back every year. With Covid this year it’s a little different. We always have family retreats and gatherings, so I didn’t get to do that this year which is really upsetting. It’s always nice to come back and see all your uncles and aunties and all your cousins. You don’t forget that. We’re a really big family. Everyone always welcomes me with open arms, even if I’m not there always. I’m really proud where I come from. It’s humbling.”
Nora Madill was born in the remote Canadian province of Nunavut and moved a lot as a child because of her father’s job with the RCMB. Travel and long distances are familiar to her. She’s enjoyed watching the experiences and new destinations hockey has provided her son Jaydon at such a young age with still more to come.
That he hasn’t lost sight of his First Nations heritage is a point of pride for her.
“Jaydon kind of comes from two backgrounds, so I think it’s important that he always stays grounded and knowing and appreciating and giving back to his Cree side of his family and culture,” Madill said. “Especially living off reserve, sometimes you can get lost in whatever’s going on at the time. So for him, being on the road, being away, I think it’s really important that he stays connected with those roots. Our reserve has been extremely supportive not only of Jaydon but all their youth and their athletes. So for me, it’s really important whenever there’s a chance he thanks them for that because not everyone has that support from their communities, but in First Nations culture, it’s a big deal.”
Dureau idolized Sasakamoose growing up. He still owns a signed Sasakamoose rookie card. When they’re on the reserve, Sasakamoose will stop by to chat. Dureau tries to pick his brain any time he can about hockey and what his experience was like while playing.
“When he was growing up in that era, there was a lot of racism, especially for Canada, First Nations people had a lot to go through,” Dureau said. “I think that was everywhere. Still to this day you find it. It’s difficult to go through. You hate to see it. It’s unfair. It’s unjust. When you see someone who was able to accomplish what he did while battling to go through that, it’s remarkable. That person has to carry a lot with them, a lot of struggle. You look at me, no one would ever think that I have Cree blood. No one thinks I’m First Nations or Aboriginal, so maybe if I was darker skin, maybe I’d get picked on. You’d hope not…But for him, you hear stories and it wasn’t an easy journey. And I think for me it’s important to let people know where I come from and who I am.”
Last January, Dureau was honored before a game at Saskatoon along with teammate Haydn Delorme as part of the Blades’ annual First Nations night. Like Dureau, Delorme is also from Ahtahkakoop, a rarity to have two players on the same WHL team.
Sasakamoose joined the on-ice ceremony. Ahtahkakoop Chief Larry Ahenakew and Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand presented the two players with star blankets, which are given rarely and only out of recognition or respect.
“It’s extremely humbling,” Dureau said of the honor. “You can’t really buy them. They have to be made specifically…When you receive these star blankets, it’s a part of your ancestry. It’s part of the past. You take it with you with a lot of pride. It’s special when you’re able to receive that.”
The star blanket was the second Dureau has received. The first was given to him at birth.
“My Kohkom made me one, and I’ve had it with me my whole life,” Dureau said. “I’ve never misplaced it or lost it. I’ve never been in a room without it. It’s always with me.”
Dureau is not unfamiliar with Tampa, the Bay Area and Florida in general.
He and his family typically vacation in the state every other year or so, staying a lot of the time in his grandparents’ motor home.
“We’re a big Disney family,” Dureau said. “I’ve been going since I was a little kid.”
Last year, Dureau, his mom, dad and two sisters visited Orlando for a week. Then they stayed on Siesta Key.
The Lightning happened to be coming off their NHL record-tying 62-win regular season and were hosting Columbus in the first round of the playoffs at Amalie Arena around the same time the family was vacationing at the beach. They’d grown into Lightning fans through their love of the area.
The opportunity to see the Bolts in person in the playoffs a little over an hour away was too good to pass up.
“Being from the middle of the prairies, we’re used to driving over an hour for hockey tournaments, even five hours to go see my parents in Winnipeg,” Madill said. “For us, driving’s not that big a deal.”
They found two sets of tickets: a pair in the lower bowl about 15 rows off the glass and another two in the upper deck behind the net next to the Between the Pipes section.
Dureau was enthralled by the atmosphere. Everybody on the street or in bars or inside the arena was wearing a blue jersey. They walked through throngs of Lightning fans chanting and cheering and partying on their way to the arena. They took pictures sitting on the oversized beach chair on Ford Thunder Alley. Inside, they clapped the giveaway thundersticks together as the Lightning took the ice. The tesla coils fired.
“That zapping was pretty cool,” Dureau said.
Jaydon and his dad sat in the lower seats for the first period then switched with his mom and sister.
“It was surreal,” Madill said. “As exciting as it is to see regular season games, we’d never seen a playoff game and certainly never a home playoff game. So the atmosphere was just out of this world.”
Unwittingly, they were spectators to one of the more disappointing moments in franchise history, the Lightning blowing a 3-0 lead they built in the first period, the Blue Jackets rallying for a stunning 4-3 victory. Columbus would go on to sweep the series.
A little over a year later, Dureau would be selected by Tampa Bay in the Fifth Round (147th overall) of the 2020 NHL Draft in his second year of draft eligibility.
“To get to see on TV that it was Tampa that drafted him, our family felt very excited,” Madill said.
Dureau’s third season with Portland in the Western Hockey League has been delayed because of Covid. The WHL has most recently announced it will start its season January 8. Players won’t report to their teams until after Christmas.
Dureau, meanwhile, is playing on loan with the Junior A Melville Millionaires until he can return to the Winterhawks. He practices Monday through Thursday with Melville. Friday and Saturday are game days. On Sundays, he goes home to White City a little over an hour away before starting the routine again the next week.
“I’m not taking any time off,” Dureau said. “I want to better myself and this organization. And I want to bring a winning mentality to Melville.”
Last year in Portland, Dureau set career highs with 19 goals and 70 points in 61 games, ranking second on Portland for scoring and assists (51). The Winterhawks are a perennial playoff team and last won a league championship in 2013. Last season’s WHL playoffs were cancelled due to COVID.
Dureau said the team this year shows a lot of promise.
“I’m really fortunate to be there,” he said. “When I first got there, they had a lot of big names like Cody Glass, and I got to watch him and skate and practice with him so that was really cool. It’s just a great organization, great coaching. We train really hard and work towards one goal to win every game. I’m really excited to get back there and looking forward to this next season.”
At 19 years old and with a January 20 birthday, Dureau could stay a fourth season in Portland next season. But his goal is to play in Syracuse in 2021-22 with the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate, one step closer to joining Sasakamoose as Ahtahkakoop First Nations’ players to skate in the NHL.
“I want to be pro, so I’m doing everything I can to make myself better and able to make that leap,” he said.