Rapid City Rush player Winston Day Chief, a Blackfoot from Canada, hopes to be a role model for both Canadian First Nations and Native American youth.
PHOTO COURTESY/RAPID CITY RUSH
Rapid City Rush seek to unite community
Recruitment of Canadian First Nations players seen as asset
By Brandon Ecoffey
Native Sun News Staff Writer
RAPID CITY — In Rapid City, a divide has existed for generations between the Native American community and the rest of the city.
And the Rapid City Rush hockey organization and its Blackfoot right winger, Winston Day Chief, have the potential to do something about that divide.
To say the relations between the white and Native American communities in Rapid City have been strained for a while is an understatement. Just recently, several retail stores in the city refused to acknowledge the existence of Native American Day in South Dakota, and instead chose to hold Columbus Day sales.
Incidents like this demonstrate just how little the greater South Dakota community has come since the inception of the Native American Day holiday in 1990.
There have been many valiant attempts made from both sides of the city to mend the relationship. However, it seems that every time progress is made an incident occurs that forces the two communities apart again.
Part of the reason it has been so difficult to build and sustain a positive relationship between the two races in the city is that there has been very little common ground on which both sides could come together on — until possibly now.
Popular among the city’s white population since their arrival in 2008, the Rapid City Rush hockey team has brought a newfound interest and passion to the city that could transcend the power that racial divide and ignorance have held over the city for so long: the Rush have in the past and continue today to feature some of the Central Hockey League’s best and most-talented players, many of whom just happen to be members of Canada’s First Nations tribes.
In past years, the Rush have had on the ice players such as Colt King, an Anishinaabe from Thunder Bay, Ontario, who may be — according to Rush head coach Joe Ferras — one of the toughest players in the league, Clay Plume, Blackfoot, a steady and consistent defenseman from Standoff, Alberta, and now Winston Day Chief, a prolific scorer who on any given night could bring the Rush’s predominately white crowd to its feet with his dazzling display of skating and puck skills.
Despite the fact that the Central Hockey League is filled with some of the top Native American and Canadian First Nations athletes perhaps in all of professional sports, the presence of these athletes has somehow managed to slip under the radar of the usually hyper-aware sports-conscious world of western South Dakota’s Native population.
Eric Yellow Boy, an Oglala Lakota and member of Rapid City’s prolific Native community, told Native Sun News: “Last year, I went to a few Rush games and they were great. I noticed, however, that the crowd was mostly white. I think if Indian people knew that there were people like them playing for the Rush they would go. We are kind of weird like that.”
Late last season, the Rush signed Day Chief, who is from Standoff in Alberta, Canada, a community located on the Blood Reserve.
Day Chief — who is as humble as he is talented — is expected to be one of the Rush’s primary offensive threats this upcoming season.
Head coach Joe Ferras had nothing but praise for the highly skilled right winger. “He (Day Chief) is a great kid with lots of skills and strength. He sees the game very well. He is real quiet and humble,” Ferras said. “I only wish I could get him to say more,” the coach jokingly added.
Not only has Day Chief impressed the coaching staff, but he has made an impression on the upper management of the organization. “Winston is just a great kid. He is a wonderful human being,” said Rush General Manager Tim Hill.
Day Chief, who prefers to let his play do the talking, is a perfect ambassador for both Native people and the Rush.
“I want Native youth to see me as a role model. I want them to know, and I want to show them, that there is more out there than the reserves and the drugs and alcohol,” Day Chief said. “I would definitly like to see more Native people come out to the games to support the team.”
He went on to say that in comparison to his college hockey days, the games in the CHL are “a lot faster, people hit harder and skate harder,” which makes for an exciting brand of hockey that is appealing to people of all races.
What is unique about the Rush is that the organization provides a big-time professional sports environment in a way that is both financially accessible and extremely personal. The combination of these two factors allows for the Rush to appeal to people from a wide range of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, which includes the white and Native communities in Rapid City.
The Rush organization understands this community appeal and has in the past worked to bring in more Native fans. Daniel Nieves, head of media relations and a broadcaster for the Rush, told NSN that “We have done a handful of things (with the Native community), but we want to do more, we want to give them the experiences that come with the Rush.”
Although it wasn’t the sole intention of the Rush to recruit Native fans, the outreach programs that they have done in the community have involved Native youth. These projects include their Goals for Dreams program, which they have done in coordination with the National Hockey Leagues Players’ Association.
Goals for Dreams is a program that works to bring the game of hockey to underprivileged children who would not otherwise have the financial means to play the game.
The Rush have also in the past brought their players into local classrooms to speak to both Native and non-Native children.
The hockey organization hopes that with the help of its outreach programs and the team it puts out on the ice on any given night that it could be something the Rapid City community could potentially unite around.
“The Rush could be a link between the Native community and the rest of Rapid City,” Nieves said.
The team plays a 66-game schedule this season. For dates of home games and other information, go to the Rush’s website at www.rapidcityrush.com.
(Contact Brandon Ecoffey at email@example.com)