Throughout the National Hockey League’s long history, only about 80 players have self-identified as Indigenous. Determining the best among them is difficult as they played different positions in different eras. Any list of the most important Indigenous NHL players who were born in Canada would include the following talented athletes.
1. Fred Sasakamoose (born 25 December 1933; died 24 November 2020; Cree)
While at a Saskatchewan residential school, Sasakamoose demonstrated remarkable hockey skills. In 1954, at age 20, he fulfilled a dream when he joined the Chicago Black Hawks to become one of the NHL’s first Indigenous players. He played only 11 NHL games but inspired countless Indigenous youth with similar dreams. He returned home to the Ahtahkakoop First Nation and developed hockey programs that led to leagues, tournaments and the Saskatchewan Indian Summer and Winter Games (now called the Tony Cote Winter/Summer Games). Sasakamoose later served on the NHL Diversity Task Force and the Aboriginal Healing Foundation and was invested in the Order of Canada.
2. Reggie Leach (born 23 April 1950; Ojibwe)
Leach was drafted by the Boston Bruins in 1970 but was traded to the California Golden Seals and then, in 1974, to the Philadelphia Flyers. He became a popular star with the Flyers, helping the team win its second consecutive Stanley Cup in 1975. In the 1975-76 season, he led the league in scoring with 61 goals. In a playoff game that year he scored a remarkable five goals. Leach became the first non-goalie of a losing team to win the Conn Smythe Trophy as the best player in the playoffs, having scored 19 goals and 24 points in only 16 games. He retired in 1984 having scored 381 regular season goals and 47 NHL post-season goals.
3. Carey Price (born 16 August 1987; Ulkatcho First Nation)
Price joined the Montreal Canadiens in 2007. He was a major contributor to Team Canada’s winning the gold medal at the 2014 Olympics, winning all five games in which he played and posting an astounding.972 save percentage. He was chosen the best goaltender at the Olympics. For his performance in the 2014–15 season with Montreal, he won the Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s best goaltender and the William M. Jennings Trophy for fewest goals allowed by a goaltender. Price was also awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy for being the league’s Most Valuable Player and then earned the NHL Players’ Association’s Ted Lindsay Award as the league’s best player.
4. Theo Fleury (born 29 June 1968; Métis)
Fleury was often the smallest but still the toughest, most intimidating player on the ice. He played his first game with the Calgary Flames halfway through the 1988–89 season and immediately impressed fans with his scrappy style of play. He finished the season with 34 points in 36 games. His five playoff goals helped the Flames win the Stanley Cup. In the 1990-91 season he scored an impressive 51 goals. He went on to play with Colorado, New York Rangers and Chicago. Fleury was also a member of the Team Canada that won a gold medal in the 2002 Olympics.
5. George Armstrong (born 6 July 1930; died 24 January 2021; Algonquin)
Armstrong earned the respect of fans and fellow players for his skill and work ethic on the ice along with his quiet nature and gentle humility. His 21 seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs is a team record. He is also the team’s longest serving captain — from 1957 to 1969. The Maple Leafs founder, Conn Smythe called him the greatest captain in franchise history. Armstrong led the team to four Stanley Cups and was chosen to be on the all-star team seven times.
6. Stan Jonathan (born 5 September 1955; Tuscarora)
Jonathan enjoyed a remarkable junior career with the Peterborough Petes, but scouts believed he was too small for the NHL until, in 1976, the Boston Bruins took a chance and signed him after drafting him in 1975. He worked well with the hard-nosed Boston style and never shied away from a fight, thus becoming among the toughest players in the league. The left-winger also contributed offensively and impressed all with one of the most accurate shots in the league. He scored 27 goals in his second season. After sustaining a broken wrist and shoulder injury his play suffered. He was traded to Pittsburgh, where, after another injury-plagued season, he retired.
7. Jordin Tootoo (born 2 February 1983; Inuk)
Tootoo grew up in Rankin Inlet, Nunavut. In 2003, he became the first Inuk to play in the NHL. The same year, he became the first Inuk player to represent Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championship. He scored 65 goals in his NHL career, playing for Nashville, Detroit, Chicago and New Jersey. He was known for annoying, distracting, and sometimes fighting opponents, thereby throwing them off their game. Off-ice, he was engaged in the cities where he played in support of charities and community programs. He was involved in outreach initiatives in northern Indigenous communities in Canada throughout his career and after he left the game. In 2017, Tootoo was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal.
8. Bryan Trottier (born 17 July 1956; Métis)
Trottier joined the New York Islanders in 1975 and won the Calder Memorial Trophy as the league’s top rookie. Three seasons later he won the scoring title with 134 points. Trottier led the Islanders to four Stanley Cups and, in 1980, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the best player in the playoffs. He was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he was instrumental in the team winning the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992. He retired after 18 years in the league and became an assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche, where, in 2001, he won his seventh Stanley Cup.
9. Jonathan Cheechoo (born 15 July 1980; Cree)
After an impressive minor-hockey career, in 2002 Cheechoo joined the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. He engaged in an intensive off-season workout plan that bore fruit the next season when he scored 28 goals. His breakout year came in the 2005-06 season when Joe Thornton joined his line and Cheechoo scored 56 goals, earning him the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer. Subsequent seasons saw fewer goals scored, a trade to Ottawa, and then a move to the Kontinental Hockey League in Europe, where he again excelled as an offensive threat. He ended his career with 501 regular season NHL games and 170 goals.
10. Dwight King (born 5 July 1989; Métis)
Growing up in Saskatchewan, King played for Beardy's Blackhawks. This was the only hockey program in Canada based on a First Nation and run by First Nations people until 2019, when the Saskatchewan Hockey Association cut the program. King went on to play for the LA Kings, and on 12 February 2012 scored his first NHL career goal against the Dallas Stars. In 2012, the year the Kings won their first Stanley Cup, King scored five goals and three assists in 20 games. He got his first NHL hat trick on 24 October 2013 against the Phoenix Coyotes. King won another Stanley Cup a year later when the Kings beat the New York Rangers. In 2017, King went on to play with the Montreal Canadians before playing hockey internationally.