Grad student explores roots on and off the ice

Paul Mayne // Western News

Kalley Armstrong, a standout hockey player whose grandfather is Hockey Hall of Fame winger George Armstrong, recently led a hockey camp for area Indigenous kids.

Kalley Armstrong might justifiably boast about her pedigree – whether about her stellar hockey career with one of North America’s top college teams, or as granddaughter of a Hockey Hall of Fame player. But even if hockey is in her DNA, boasting is not.

Instead, the Anthropology graduate student is most pumped about how sharing her on-ice talents with young Indigenous athletes is helping her explore her First Nations roots.

Armstrong is the driving force behind a recent hockey school for young players from the Chippewa, Munsee-Delaware and Oneida (CMO) communities west of London.

“We’re providing hockey development. They’re getting exposure to good hockey resources. But it’s also important to emphasize what hockey does outside the rink – being proud of who you are and having a purpose in who you are,” she said.

“It’s giving First Nations youth access to these resources and people who really care about them – about being a resource for them on and off the ice.”

A standout centre for the Harvard Crimson women’s hockey team, where she captained the squad in her graduating year, Armstrong was an assistant coach last season for the Mustangs women’s hockey team. Last season, she also coached a novice team in the CMO association.

Last week, she shared her enthusiasm with dozens of kids at the camp – banging her stick in delight as a player gave her a snow shower during a precision stop; kneeling to encourage a youngster frustrated with a skating drill; showcasing her puck-handling with a nifty head fake and toe drag.

“When you’re skating backwards,” she demonstrated, “it’s like you’re sitting on a chair. Back straight, head up – let’s go!”

But the camp was about more than hockey development for kids who might not otherwise have had that opportunity. Indigenous traditions are as fundamental to the event as skating and shooting.

For instance, the week began with a smudging ceremony led by elders Mary Lou Smoke and Dan Smoke, professors in the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry’s Interfaculty Program in Public Health.

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Off the ice, Armstrong draws inspiration and strength from her grandfather, George Armstrong, the first Indigenous NHL player.

Throughout his 20-year playing career with the Toronto Maple Leafs, he was a five-time All-Star, the Leafs’ longest-serving team captain with 13 years wearing the ‘C’, and a four-time Stanley Cup winner, including the team’s last Cup in 1967.

Just turned 89, he still brings a keen analytical eye to the rink as part of the Leafs’ scouting staff.

“I’m super proud to be part Indigenous because of him. Over the past few years I’ve been trying to connect with those roots,” Armstrong said.

The legacy of racism and colonialism is part of the family’s ongoing story. Because of rules of the Indian Act at the time, George Armstrong’s Algonquin mother lost her Indian status when she married her non-Indigenous husband.

“In my grandfather’s experience, growing up as an Indigenous hockey player in the NHL, that (racism) created a bit of fire in his belly. Hockey was a vehicle for him to deal with it,” Armstrong said.

Anthropology graduate student Kalley Armstrong, a standout hockey player whose grandfather is Hockey Hall of Fame winger George Armstrong, is writing her thesis about her grandfather’s experiences as the NHL’s first Indigenous player.

She sees some of that same passion in her young proteges and also marvels at their growing sense of identity and pride.

“They’re such amazing kids. I’ve always wanted to give back to the Indigenous community because of this and because of my grandfather. I am teaching them about something I know about – hockey – but they are teaching me, too, about what it means to be Indigenous. They are so proud. I feel I am learning way more from them.”

The CMO United Hockey League and parents have offered considerable support to the hockey school, she said. Working with her on and off the ice are Kelly Babstock, a former college standout with Quinnipiac Bobcats, and Sydney Daniels, Armstrong’s former Harvard teammate – both Indigenous players and pros with the National Women’s Hockey League.

When she graduated from Harvard, Armstrong signed on as assistant hockey coach at Western and began working as an administrator in the Western Centre for Public Health and Family Medicine.

There, she met Schulich professor Gerald McKinley, who explores social determinants of Indigenous health in Ontario. Sensing her passion for hockey and love for her grandfather, McKinley urged her to earn her master’s degree.

Part of her thesis entails presenting her grandfather’s oral history. “We sit in his basement and I listen to his stories and the way hockey played into his experience as an Indigenous person.”

Through his words, she understands the challenges and pride of her heritage, and the strength he developed to share with his children and grandchildren.

“Growing up with my grandpa, he was always a role model, a hero to me. He is the best grandpa a kid could ask for,” Armstrong said. “He taught me a lot about how to carry myself as a person and as a hockey player. I’ve tried to model myself after him.”