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How One Team Used Power of Hockey to Learn About Orange Jersey Project

By Ontario Minor Hockey Association, 03/29/23, 11:15AM EDT


Strengthening their knowledge of Indigenous Peoples and the history of Residential Schools

In January 2023 the coaches of the St.Thomas Minor Hockey Association U11 (2012) AA Junior Stars surprised the players with new jerseys. These jerseys weren’t the team’s colours. These jerseys were a bolder colour, that stood out, and drew attention. These jerseys had a different logo on them too. The coaches had requested Orange Jersey Project jerseys for the team. The player’s instantly accepted them with enthusiasm, donning them as soon as they could at their next practice. When the coaches bestowed the jerseys to these athletes, they instilled in the players that these jerseys came with a great responsibility and expectations. The expectation was that the athletes would become educated about the history of Residential Schools. The expectation that they would strengthen their knowledge of Indigenous Peoples. Most importantly, that they would be responsible for acknowledging, accepting, and respecting all athletes without prejudice or discrimination.

In mid-February 2023 these jerseys disappeared from their hockey bags. When I asked my player where his jersey went, he told me that the coaches had to do something with them.

On Sunday February 19, 2023, St. Thomas Minor Hockey Association U11 (2012) AA Junior Stars faced London Junior Knights U11 (2012) AA – White, at the Joe Thornton Community Centre in St. Thomas, Ontario. 

Prior to the game I received a call from head coach Jon Dryfhout informing me that there would be a speech and presentation prior to the game. I was invited to attend. When my wife, daughter and I arrived all but one player was dressed in their Orange Jersey Project jerseys, with the St. Thomas Stars crest on their left shoulders, and their jersey numbers on their backs. One player was seated not wearing a jersey. 

Coach Dryfhout, standing in the centre of the room, began his speech. He quizzed these ten and eleven year old athletes on their knowledge of Residential Schools. Within only a moment the voices of seventeen future emissaries and allies began sharing what they had learned about Residential Schools and Indigenous Peoples, with such detail that every adult in the room was speechless at how knowledgeable these youth were. So much so that Dryfhout remarked his admiration for the players far exceeding expectations. 

After hearing from the youth, Dryfhout continued his speech, that would have left the most robust of characters choked, emphasizing the purpose and importance of the jerseys that they had been gifted. That the players, while wearing these jerseys, were playing for a greater cause that day. That they were to play with strength, resilience, courage, and determination to honour those who have been impacted by Residential Schools. Those who are survivors, and those who did not.

Following Dryfhout’s speech the energy in that room could be felt in the air, if not throughout the entire arena. The player that was not wearing a jersey was #77, Ken Carnahan. Dryfhout then turned his attention on Carnahan. Surrounded by his teammates and the coaching staff, including Dryfhout, Cory S., D.J. K., Dave H., Ryan W., Kevin B., and Mike L., Dryfhout addressed Carnahan, calling him to the centre of the room. 

Dryfhout then announced that Carnahan was being gifted his Orange Jersey with “C” on the left chest next to the #87, for Truth and Reconciliation Commission Call to Action #87, and had been appointed as the honorary captain for the game. Dryfhout handed the jersey to Carnahan’s mother, Sarah, a member of the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, to place the jersey on her son. Immediately after receiving the jersey, without prompt, the players began cheering and chanted “Captain Ken” for their teammate, surrounding one another, molding into one indistinct orange form of unity.

Prior to hitting the ice, the players lined up in the hallway, could still be heard chanting “Captain Ken”. The coaches had planned for Carnahan to take the ice first. When the gate opened, Carnahan was the first player out the gate, hitting the ice with a tempo not seen before. He was given the ice to complete a lap before his teammates joined him. Carnahan’s Kokomis (grandmother), a member of Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation, who herself is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop, unaware that the team would be wearing their orange jerseys and that her grandson was honorary captain, was in attendance for the game.

After Carnahan’s lap the remainder of the team hit the ice with a level of passion I hadn’t seen from them before. For the remainder of the game, the entire St. Thomas Junior Stars U11 Team played with such relentless vigor, strength, determination, resiliency, and unwavering commitment that anyone in the audience would have thought it must have come from the jerseys. In fact, it had, combined with the words of Dryfhout and the coaching staff. Every, single, player, on the team that day gave their every effort, battling to achieve a hard earned 3-2 win over the formidable London Junior Knights – White.

In the audience, families, friends, bystanders, and even players warming up for their game could be heard asking what the “Orange Jerseys” were for. The Orange Jersey Project’s mission was a success. They had “…use[d] the power of sport to serve as a vehicle toward educating today’s young athletes about the history of Indian Residential School System and strengthen the path toward truth and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.”.

Playing against London Junior Knights – White, Ken Carnahan faced a former lacrosse (baggataway) teammate, whose father Dean J., on the Knights bench, had been one of Carnahan’s lacrosse coaches. Following the game Dean J. remarked to Stars goalie coach D.J. K. how much he valued the impact of the jerseys and commended the Stars for promoting the Orange Jersey Project. Maybe the next time we face off against the London Junior Knights they’ll be clad in orange jerseys.

Not only are Dryfhout, Corey S., D.J. K., Dave H., Ryan W., Kevin B., Mike L., and James S. developing athletes, they are undoubtedly developing a generation of the greatest citizens in our communities. The determination, accountability, work ethic, integrity, commitment, and potential of these youth is by far the greatest score on the board.

Chi-Miigwech St. Thomas Stars U11 (2012) AA players, bench staff, parents, families, friends, fans and supporters. Chi-Miigwech.

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