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Oilers' outreach to Indigenous community reaches beyond pregame land recognition video

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EDMONTON -

Before the puck drops and before 18,000 fans sing “O Canada” in unison at Edmonton Oilers home games, the audience hears from Chief Willie Littlechild.

A message from Littlechild plays on Rogers Place video screens, welcoming the crowd to Treaty 6 territory, the homelands of Métis and Inuit and the ancestral territory of the Cree, Dene, Blackfoot, Saulteaux and Nakota Sioux.

“The recognition of our history on this land is an act of reconciliation, and we honour those who walk with us,” Littlechild says, ending with “kinanaskomitin” — thank you, in Cree.

The land recognition video, a tradition that began in 2021, is getting major airtime across North America with the Oilers on national television in the U.S. and Canada in the Stanley Cup Final against Florida. Littlechild called it a significant step, but it is only one piece of the Oilers' outreach to First Nations tribes and the Indigenous community in central and northern Alberta that has grown significantly over the past decade.

“We’ve had significant progress,” said Littlechild, who has served on the team's community foundation board for nine years. “The Oilers have really been pioneers in the country, and I would say in the whole National Hockey League, in terms of inclusion and access for Indigenous peoples.”

Much of it stemmed from Canada's National Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, a six-plus-year study conducted from 2007-15 in the wake of the country's largest class-action lawsuit settled over the treatment of First Nations children sent to Indigenous residential schools. Littlechild said one of the findings was a call to private industry, including sports, to build better relationships with the Indigenous community, and he cited steps made in inclusion and business as evidence of progress.

“We don’t do this just to check a box of inclusion on the calendar,” Oilers Entertainment Group executive vice president Tim Shipton said Wednesday. “The Indigenous community in northern Alberta is significant. There are nations right across Oil country and members of the community are such passionate members of our fanbase.”

'A very significant step forward'

Littlechild said Indigenous girls hockey has seen a particular boost from efforts, including the Oilers hosting a First Nations hockey celebration and working with Edmonton’s Inner City Youth Development Association and the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society.

The land recognition video is one piece of the puzzle and something Littlechild as recently as last week across the country in Quebec City got comments on from fans who noticed it on TV during this playoff run.

“It has been a very significant step forward to advance reconciliation through the power of sport,” Littlechild told The Associated Press by phone. “It’s so important as a message to the Indigenous peoples both in Canada and the U.S. that we have an opportunity here through a sport like hockey to build good relations, and we’ve been doing that. It’s really appreciated, I know, by our Indigenous nations across the country.”

Shipton, who leads the Oilers' Indigenous outreach, said other organizations and teams have reached out about the video since it first aired Oct. 13, 2021, and drew positive reactions locally and nationally.

“It’s something that people who are new, people coming from out of town or other teams across the league, they come in and it really spurs a conversation around why do you do it, what does it mean,” Shipton said. “And it creates that opening to talk about the things that we can do from a reconciliation perspective.”

Florida attendance

Attendance at Panthers home games this season reached a new record of 1,000,160, breaking the one-million mark for the first time with a sellout in Game 5 on Tuesday night.

The Panthers will be pleased if it stops there.

The only way the figure goes up this season, obviously, is if there’s a Game 7 in Sunrise on Monday night.

Florida can win the Stanley Cup with a win at Edmonton on Friday. The team is hosting a watch party at its arena for Game 6; about 16,000 people came to the arena to watch Game 4 on the scoreboard and with images on the ice as well. (No, they don’t count toward the attendance for the season.)

Bouchard passes Coffey

With three points in the Oilers' Game 5 victory, Evan Bouchard reached 32 in the playoffs, second only to captain Connor McDavid among all scorers in the playoffs.

He has also surpassed Hall of Famer Paul Coffey, who is now an Oilers assistant coach, in assists by a defenceman in a postseason, with 26 to Coffey's 25 in 1984-85. Coffey, however, still holds onto the record for most points by a defenceman in a playoff run at 37.

“(Bouchard) has been very key for the entire series and through the entire year,” coach Kris Knoblauch said, pointing to the 24-year-old's shot from the point as a key to his team's potent power play. “He does have the shot, but he’s also a very smart hockey player who sees the ice really well and can make that next pass.” 

Save Bill

Panthers hockey operations president and general manager Bill Zito had a viral moment of sorts late in Game 5, when he threw a water bottle against a wall in frustration after McDavid’s empty-net goal sealed the Oilers' win.

Upon hearing about it, Panthers coach Paul Maurice expressed some very funny, very faux concerns.

“Were the bottled water association people upset? We going to cancel Bill?” Maurice asked.

Reynolds reported from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. With files from Canadian Press.

Correction

This story has been updated to correct Paul Coffey's number of assists and points. 

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