By Lyonel Doherty
When Thomas Gabriel Jr. gets older, he’ll be able to brag that an NHL legend literally put him inside the Stanley Cup.
Famed hockey player Reggie Leach scooped the 13-day-old baby up on Wednesday and placed him inside the cup for a photograph with mom Diana Roxo and Thomas Gabriel Sr. during a special ceremony at Sen Pok Chin School.
Osoyoos Indian Band Chief Clarence Louie pulled some strings and made it happen after years of trying to bring the Cup to Oliver.
“It is not easy getting the Cup – you can’t just call the Hockey Hall of Fame and say I want the Cup on this date.”
But Louie’s business contacts eventually helped swing the deal.
The highlight for him was the “old Indian” hockey players who came from all over the Okanagan and “were truly excited not only to see the Cup but to see their old hockey rivals that they haven’t seen for over 20 years.”
Louie said in every town and on every Indian reservation there are true hockey fans (or players) who have hockey in their blood and stamped on their heart, and still wear their old hockey jerseys with a pride second to none.
“Many of the old Indian hockey players were truly excited to get their only chance to not only get close to the Cup but to touch it, and for all serious hockey fans getting a pic with the Cup is a ‘bucket list’ moment,” Louie said.
Jenny Anderson and her family were thrilled to see the Cup, noting that she grew up watching hockey with her dad, who was a “super duper” hockey fan.
“Seeing the Stanley Cup was definitely on my bucket list,” she said.
Anderson noted it was so nice to see the ecstatic look on the faces of Wolf Creek Chargers players who helped carry the Cup to the school auditorium. She also found it interesting to learn the history of all the old aboriginal teams that played in the league.
Local senior Georgena Forsythe said, “I wouldn’t care if I waited three hours . . . this is a once in a lifetime thing for me to touch the Stanley Cup. Never did I think I would get this great opportunity!”
Forsythe also had a grand tour of the new Indian band office, which made the day extra special.
Long-time Philadelphia Flyers fan Rob Barker appeared to be the only one wearing the orange and black jersey. And Leach noticed it right away.
In fact, it was Leach who took off his Stanley Cup ring and offered it to Barker to wear for a photograph.
“I was kind of shocked myself, my right hand was shaking so much.”
Barker has been a Flyers fan since the 1970s. They were originally known as the Broad Street Bullies because they were such as tough team.
“Reggie was a great goal scorer,” Barker recalled, noting the NHL player once scored five or six goals in one game.
The Stanley Cup arrived at the Osoyoos Indian Band office under the watchful eye of a white-gloved NHL caretaker who made sure nobody ran off with it or dropped it.
The cup then made its way to Sen Pok Chin school courtesy of current and former aboriginal hockey players who took turns carrying it.
Chief Louie introduced Leach, saying he was the best native hockey player in the NHL, who was drafted third overall by the Boston Bruins in 1970.
The right winger from Riverton, Manitoba played 13 seasons in the NHL and contributed to the Flyers’ Stanley Cup win in the mid-1970s. His best season was with the Flyers in 1975-76 when he scored 61 goals, earning him the title of most goals scored in one season. He also set a record of 19 goals in the playoffs.
Leach said it was a great honour for Oliver to host the Cup, noting he was so glad to see all of the happy faces.
He then talked about how important it is to work hard in life to succeed.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from. The big thing is to work hard and enjoy what you do.”
He said life is no different than being on a hockey team, you have to work hard together. Leach also hinted that First Nations need to work together more rather than as separate entities.
“We need to pull together as one nation.”
Leach spoke about today’s youth, urging them to be responsible for their choices, particularly the bad ones.
“Whatever choice you make, you own that choice.”
Leach said many parents take the attitude that “it’s okay, they’re only kids.”
“I don’t care. They have to be held responsible for their actions.”
Leach said he grew up in a community where you would get into a fight for 40 seconds and then end up friends again. That’s the way it was.
He first encountered racism in junior hockey in Winnipeg. During one game, he noticed his brother fighting in the stands. A fan apparently called him a “dirty Indian,” at which point his grandmother whacked the guy over the head with her purse.
Way to go, grandma!
As a youngster, Leach worked hard for his dream to play against his childhood hero – Gordie Howe.
Bobby Orr once told Leach to watch out for Gordie, and sure enough, Gordie gave Leach a big elbow behind the net.
“I turned around and gave him a two-hander, and he (Gordie) said, ‘you’re going to be okay, kid’”
Leach said today’s hockey is made for First Nations players. “We have the speed . . . but you’ve got to share the puck!” he said to laughter.