Varsity

From Hockey Hero to Education Leader

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By Caitrin Hodson

It was winter 1970 when Gerard Peltier picked up his first stick and put on his first pair of skates, unaware of a future in hockey that would stretch far beyond his imagination and the backyard pond he learned to play on.

“It started with dad yelling at the TV screen,” Peltier recalled. “That’s where I got introduced to it, was my dad watching hockey on a Saturday night.” And for his father, hockey meant the Toronto Maple Leafs. At just eight years old, Peltier was usually in bed, but one fateful Saturday night his dad let him stay up to watch the game.

Gerard Peltier at the Humber College Hall of Fame ceremony in October 2018. (Courtesy of Humber College)

“I got to watch Bobby Orr beat up on the Toronto Maple Leafs. My dad was a big Leafs fan, and he was not too happy that day,” Peltier chuckled. But it was that game and that Saturday night that came to mark the beginning of a storied hockey career that would send Peltier far from home, to break barriers, win championships and inspire a future generation of First Nations youth.

“He was tall, lanky, could skate like the wind, had great moves. He was just smooth,” remembered Dana Shutt, Peltier’s former Humber Hawks coach and Humber Hall of Famer. “He had athletic ability that you just don’t find every day. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He could skate, he could shoot, he could pass, he could play defense.”

“In sports, there’s great players and then there’s champions, and champions are different. And Gerard was definitely a champion. And that’s more than just a guy with an ability to play a game,” Shutt said of the former OCAA player.

Gerard Peltier (left), his grandson Koda Peltier and his son Jesse Peltier stand outside of the Meadowvale 4 Rinks arena in Mississauga, where Koda played in the Little Native Hockey League’s 48th tournament. (Caitrin Hodson)

Peltier’s ascension to hockey greatness began in his hometown, The Wiikwemkoong First Nation. And his success, he said, was due to his parents Sara and Albert “Hardy” Peltier, who pushed him toward his dream and gave him the opportunity to achieve it.

“I mean, I was always taught when I was small, if you want it, you go get it. Nobody’s going to do it for you”, Peltier said. “If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here.”

Peltier, who according to his wife Maxine, doesn’t do anything halfway, began refining his skills on the pond behind his grandparents’ house, sometimes practicing for six to eight hours a day. “Frozen toes and the whole bit,” he said. And by the time he was 11 or 12, he was good. Very good. It didn’t take for his ambitions to grow beyond the pond.

“I was 12 or 13, and one day I just told my dad that I wanted to play professional hockey,” Peltier said. “He looked straight at me and he said, ‘you know what Gerard, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Canadiens, the Boston Bruins, they will never come to Wiikwemkoong, so you’re going to have to do one thing. You’re going to have to leave.’” And at just 14 years old, Peltier left home for North Bay, to chase his dream of playing professional hockey.

His best man and long-time friend Kevin Wassegijig remembered when Peltier left. Wassegijig, who also grew up in Wiikwemkoong, but was five years Peltier’s junior, said he figured if he wanted to make it in hockey, and if Peltier went to North Bay, it would be a good place for him to go, too.

“He was always a role model, somebody we looked up to you. Even when he’d just started, when he was playing at home. Just the way he carried himself,” Wassegijig said. “His commitment to the game and his commitment to the community. So, a lot of us younger ones coming up behind him really looked up to him.”

But it was a tough start for Peltier at  Scollard Hall Catholic Boy’s High School, where he said he spent his first two weeks in tears. There were no cellphones in those days, and when you were allowed to call home on Sunday nights you had to wait in line, Peltier recalled, only to get about five minutes on the phone.

Leaving home at such a young age isn’t easy for any small-town kid, but being a small-town First Nations kid came with its own set of challenges. Far from home and far from the familiarity of his tight-knit community, Peltier was distinctly aware that he was different from most of the kids at school.

“I remember having to stand in front of a crowd, and of course they were all white kids. A few of us were Indigenous. And you had to introduce yourself. So, I said, ‘my name’s Gerard and I’m from Wiky, and I’m here to get an education and I want to play hockey,’” Peltier said, recalling the snickering and laughing that followed in the background. “I knew who I was. I was a First Nations Indian,” he said. “I knew I was different.”

His wife Maxine remembers hearing about the racism that occurred. “When I think about Gerard, some of the stories I heard, and my parents would tell the same stories,” she said. “Being spit at, having garbage thrown at you, being called names.”

Peltier also recalled punches being thrown at him from the bench.

It was trying and as much as he wanted to play hockey, he was ready to pack it in. But his parents told him to stick it out. “So, I did. And it worked out. Because guess who made the team?” Peltier said. It was fuel for the determined teenager. “I ate, slept, watched and I learned. I went to the rink and I watched the men play, I watched my competitors play, I watched my teammates play.”

And in 1981, his tenacity payed off when he was drafted to the OHL’s Cornwall Royals. A team that included future NHL players like Doug Gilmour, Mark Crawford and Dale Hawerchuk. The team won the Memorial Cup that year, beating out the Kitchener Rangers 5 to 2.

“We pulled into Cornwall the day after the championship game and there was probably five or six thousand people in our home arena waiting for us,” Peltier recalled. There’s nothing like the welcome-home of thousands of screaming fans, he said. And for a small-town guy it was amazing. His hockey career was at an all-time high, making it hard to believe that just a year-and-a-half later he would throw his gear on a bonfire, believing it was all over.

“I thought I’d hit the end of my life. And I said, ‘that’s it, I quit, I’m done,’” Peltier said. After two years of playing for Cornwall, he’d gone to Michigan to play semi-pro in the IHL for the Muskegon Mohawks but was released after just six months.

Back home in Wiikwemkoong, frustrated and discouraged, Peltier decided to go back to North Bay and attend college. He didn’t know it yet, but his hockey career was far from over. And the moments he would identify as his best were yet to come.

Peltier had no intention of playing college hockey upon his arrival at Canadore College in fall 1983, but word travelled fast, and eventually a coach tracked him down. “I didn’t want to play, but he made it sound so good,” Peltier said. Joining the team turned out to be a good decision: they made it to the 1984 provincials and Peltier took home is first CCAA All-Canadian and his first CCAA Championship All-Star.

Shutt coached the Hawks at that time and remembers Peltier. “The first time I saw him, he was playing against me for the Canadore College Panthers, and we put out a power play and I thought, ‘Wow this is gonna be good, they’re two men short and alls we’ve gotta do is score a goal in the game,’” he remembered, laughing at what happened next. Gerard, who was behind the net, deked out their power play, scoring for the Panthers.

When Shutt heard Peltier was attending Humber in Fall 1986, he wanted him on the team. Peltier, who’d taken time off hockey to start a family with his wife Maxine, wasn’t sure if he could balance his commitment to his family with earning money, going to school, and playing hockey. But Shutt convinced him.

“I hadn’t skated in two years, and I was going to play college hockey,” Peltier said.

When Peltier stepped on the ice for the first time, Shutt said, “like anybody else, he was not quite the player he was when I saw him the year before, but I knew who he was.” And it was only a few weeks before Peltier took to the ice once again.

 “He’s a beautiful skater. He’s a smart hockey player, so it didn’t take him long,” Maxine recalled.

Shutt remembers Peltier as a humble man and a terrific hockey player, who never carried an ego and was never above hard work. If the coach asked him to sweep out the dressing room, he would, Shutt said. He never yelled at the referees or his teammates. And with a quiet combination of skill, humility and the desire to take his team to the top, Shutt said Peltier carried himself like a champion. “It was magical from the moment he walked in.”

He was unselfish, it wasn’t about him, Shutt said. He wanted the team to win and the players on his team and the other teams respected him because of that.

He made an impression on everyone he ever played with, against, or for, Shutt said. “Many people you forget, and I don’t forget anything about him.”

“He just had that special quality about him, on and off the ice, and he made those Humber teams champions. We won five championships in a row and Gerard was definitely a huge part of those.” In addition to two championships at Humber, Peltier added two more CCAA All-Canadian honours to his roster.

“A lot of superstars want to be treated special. He didn’t want any special treatment, he just wanted me to treat him as a player and he was truly — and I’ve always said this, I’ve had players tell me that they were honored to play for Humber or honored to play for me. And Gerard was a player I can honestly say, I’m honored to have coached him,” Shutt said.

Reflecting on his hockey career, Peltier said he appreciated his college years most. “I enjoyed the All-Canadian a little bit more, because with those I participated a lot more, I excelled, I put numbers up. Whereas the first year I was in Cornwall, I didn’t see the ice as much. To tell you the truth, my butt saw a lot of slivers,” he laughed. “But I was still part of a great team, that had a lot of great players. I won’t sell that short.”

And despite the milestones, awards and championships, his voice swells with pride the most when he talks about his family, his community and his work as a First Peoples Recruitment and Retention Officer at Canadore College.

Their four boys learned how to play hockey on the backyard rink, said Maxine. “We always had a rink in the backyard. Because he has this belief that a backyard rink is where you get some of your best skills, and where you have the most fun,” she said.

 Kids from all over the community would come to play, under one condition.

“You had to have your homework done. So, everybody would get their homework done. And if one wasn’t done their homework, then nobody went on the rink,” she said, laughing. “I can’t believe the kids fell for it.”

This strong belief in education and a passion for helping Indigenous youth succeed made Peltier a great candidate for his role at Canadore.

“I will speak to the students about the importance of education. I will speak to the students about the importance of planning for their post-secondary, everything that goes on in between and what to expect when you’re leaving home,” Peltier explained.

Because he knows first-hand how hard it can be. The culture shock isn’t easy and his office is there to ensure students have the support they need to transition.

He knows how important representation is for First Nations students and credits the institutions for stepping up.

“Almost every institution in Ontario is being represented and that just goes to show you that those institutions understand the value of recruiters going out and speaking to those kids. Because we have a connection to them. And when they do get here, there’s a friendly face,” Peltier said.

“My community helped me do the things I needed to do. They provided that support for education, they provided that support for my sport. So, I give back,” he said.

Giving back to his community, putting himself before others and challenging First Nations youth to pursue their goals seems to come naturally to Peltier. He speaks with a humbleness that never brags or boasts, and with a gratitude for every achievement and every challenge in his life. And it’s evident that he leaves a mark on every person he encounters.

Last year, 30 years after playing for the Humber Hawks, Peltier was inducted into the 2018 Humber Hall of Fame. The website describes him as “the best player on one of the top teams in the nation, and arguably the best to ever put on a Humber Jersey.”

Referring to Peltier as an “exemplary human being,” Shutt said, “I don’t even think about him as hockey player. That’s a part of his life, but there’s so much more to that man.” 

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