Ryan Francis, a 27-year-old Mi’kmaw man, was one of three finalists for the NHL Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award for his work with the Nova Scotia-based Indigenous Girls Hockey Program.
The program, which operates in Truro, Eskasoni First Nation and Membertou First Nation, was launched in 2020 as a way to break down barriers so Indigenous girls can see themselves on the ice.
Francis is a co-founder and works behind the scenes to ensure the Mi’kmaw community feels heard and has the resources to support their athletes.
“I have a responsibility to do this because the community has supported me through my sporting journey,” said Francis, who is a member of Acadia First Nation.
The Willie O’Ree Award is given to an individual who has made a significant positive change to their community, culture or society through the sport of hockey.
The winner will be determined by fan voting and a weighted vote by Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first Black hockey player, and by sponsor MassMutual, according to a press release from the NHL. Fans can vote until April 17th.
Francis grew up outside a nature reserve in Cole Harbour, NS, which is known as the birthplace of NHL star Sidney Crosby. Francis started hockey at the age of six and played until he was 20, including two years with the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
He has always felt the support of the Mi’kmaw Nation and often has financial support from Acadia First Nation, a community of six reserves and land holdings throughout the southwest region of Nova Scotia.
Francis said in working with the Indigenous Girls Hockey Programme, he consulted with communities like Eskasoni and Membertou First Nations to hear what they needed to develop Mi’kmaw’s talent.
She then went to partners such as Hockey Nova Scotia, Hockey Canada and other sports agencies to tell them what the girls needed, such as equipment and resources.
“Ultimately, this ensures that it is the voice of the community that we respond to,” Francis said.
So far 190 athletes have participated in the Indigenous Women’s Hockey Programme.
Although Francis is uncomfortable with the spotlight that award nominations bring, he hopes a brighter light shines on Mi’kmaw athletes, and all sports become more inclusive.
Erin Denny is a Mi’kmaw hockey player who was coached by Francis during his time with Team Atlantic. Denny says Francis is a great coach and a selfless, humble person who often puts others first.
“He always tries to give back to the community,” said Denny, adding that he couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of the award.
Francis asks Denny to help train the young girls in the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program, which he says instills a lot of confidence in the girls.
“If I had this Indigenous Women’s Hockey Program when I was younger, I would definitely feel more comfortable and I would have more fun,” said Denny.
She sees this program as a valuable step in capacity building for women’s hockey in Nova Scotia. This can help athletes navigate the various skill camps, spring teams, and other opportunities they can apply to.
Francis has a ‘drive to make things happen’
Ken Bagnell, CEO of Canadian Sport Center Atlantic, has worked with Francis on various projects over the past eight years, and says Francis is dedicated and tireless in helping to remove barriers for Indigenous peoples in sport.
She feels the success of the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program is a testament to Francis’ efforts.
“It shows that anything can happen if you have the drive to make things happen, and Ryan has that drive,” Bagnell said.
Bagnell said the entire Nova Scotia sports community was proud of him.
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