This is the second installment of a spotlight series dedicated to the indigenous players in the Western Hockey League. While typical player features include quotes to support the profile, this series will focus more on direct player quotes rather than summarization in an effort to prioritize the indigenous communities’ voices and give them a platform to tell their stories. For more information about this series, click here.
“Blessed is the influence of one true, loving human soul on another.” — George Eliot
One second the Blazers are in possession, the next, the Chiefs. Berkly Catton breaks free with the puck and takes off down the ice, mirrored by Conner Roulette. A Blazer defenseman dives for it, but Catton fires the puck to Roulette. Roulette catches it and snaps it back in the same instant. Before the Blazers goalie can react, Catton snipes the puck over his shoulder, tying the game 2-2. “Gotta watch out for those two,” the Blazers announcer says. “Catton has his first of the season; Roulette set him up nicely.”
Scoring comes naturally to Conner Roulette, as well as setting up his teammates for goals of their own. His head is always in the game, he stays attentive and alert, and he has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Not only is he a great player, but the support he gives to those around him translates off the ice, too.
A member of the Misipawistik Cree Nation, Roulette is one of the few indigenous players in the Western Hockey League. “I grew up in Winnipeg,” he said. “My dad is from Sandy Bay First Nation and my mom is from Grand Rapids [Misipawistik] Cree Nation, so I’m a mixture of Ojibway and Cree.”
Growing up, his father and brother both played hockey, as well as his uncles on both sides. “I was born into [hockey]. I was never really given the option—but it’s not like I even wanted the option to play or not. I just always wanted to play. I started at a young age watching my brother and dad play and got more into it the more I grew up. I was fortunate enough to get drafted to the WHL in the Bantam Draft. From then I knew it was the route I wanted to take. For a little while, I was a bit back and forth between college hockey and the WHL, but I think the WHL draft was really cool for a kid my age so I decided to go that route.”
Roulette was drafted in the second round, 34th overall by the Seattle Thunderbirds in the 2018 WHL Bantam Draft. He made his WHL debut on January 4, 2019. On October 2, 2019, he scored his first WHL goal—the first of many. In his rookie season, 2019-20, he posted an impressive thirty-nine points (19G-20A) in fifty-four games played.
In the summer of 2021, his hard work paid off. Roulette heard his name called in the 2021 NHL Draft.
After four seasons with the Thunderbirds, ahead of the 2022-23 season, a blockbuster trade was announced: Roulette was headed to the Saskatoon Blades, in exchange for forward Kyle Crnkovic. In Saskatoon, Roulette continued to make a name for himself, scoring sixty-two points (24G-38A) in sixty games played.
On May 31, 2023, the Spokane Chiefs announced their acquisition of Roulette, bringing him back to the US Division for his final season in the WHL. “I’m heading into my fifth year now,” he said, “and the five years were all so fun. Playing for three different teams has been a cool experience, a really wild ride. I still have friends from both [Saskatoon and Seattle]. All the guys on Spokane have been really awesome, and I’m already best friends with almost every one of them. I’ve had some really really fun years. Getting drafted to the NHL was of course really awesome, especially given where I’m from, where my family’s from, it’s a pretty cool experience.”
Now more than ever, there is a growing number of indigenous players in the WHL, Roulette included. “Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m playing against another indigenous player. I’ll recognize their last name in a game and it’ll surprise me each time. And yet it’s getting to the point where I’m not surprised, and that’s how it should be. There are more indigenous players in the WHL than ever before and that’s good, that’s important. We belong here and we’re here to stay.”
A World Champion
In the 2021 International Ice Hockey Federation World’s U18 hockey tournament, Roulette helped his team capture the gold medal, putting up five points (2G-3A) in the seven games played. Each of Team Canada’s seven games were wins, including the gold medal match against Team Russia with a final score of 5-3.
Earlier this summer, Roulette led Team Canada to another gold medal, this time in ball hockey. “I love playing street hockey… so playing in a ball-hockey league was always cool,” he said. “And the older I got, more of my friends got into it and then we eventually put our own team in and ever since then, we just been putting in our own team. Half of those guys that came with me to play in Europe, they’re all the guys that were on my team when I was about 10 or 11 years old.”
Roulette served as the captain of Team Canada, netted a hat trick in the gold medal game, and, to top it all off, was named Worlds MVP.
“Growing up, because I don’t really look as indigenous as my brother or my cousins, I flew under the radar a lot,” Roulette said. “I’d be the only [indigenous player] on the team and no one would know. But I’m not a half, I’m not a percentage, I’m full-blooded indigenous. I’m Cree, I’m Ojibway.”
Being white-passing, it can be easy for teammates or even fans to not realize Roulette is indigenous. When offensive comments—racist, homophobic, the like—would arise, the easy option is to sit quiet and let them continue. It’s hard to say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” And yet, despite the easy choice right in front of him, Roulette speaks up. “I’m not the kind of guy to let that stuff slide,” he said. “If I hear that kind of talk I’ll shut it down. I’ll get a little mean…not mean, really, but stern. I don’t let the guys get away with talk like that.”
When he was younger, Roulette played in tournaments where his entire team was comprised of indigenous players. “Being on an indigenous-only team going up against other teams [who weren’t], we knew we were going to get some flack. We kept our heads down and didn’t really say anything. That’s what’s different now—now I’ll say something when I hear that stuff.”
Anyone remotely involved in the world of hockey has heard of the toxicity of hockey culture. Especially in online spaces like Twitter or Facebook, conversations circulate constantly around the negative aspects of hockey: the rampant racism, homophobia, and sexism in the sport, the inability of certain people to grow and learn, the lack of apologies from certain figures, and people with problematic pasts getting positions of power, to name a few. “I think it’s a bit silly,” Roulette said. “Especially in today’s age…I know a lot of stuff that’s been happening recently has been coming from more of the older people in the league, as in coaches and whatnot. I guess that’s just the way life was back then. I think it’s time to start realizing what day and age we’re in, and start understanding the differences in the world and start to accept them.”
The perspective on hockey culture changes depending on your position in the world of hockey. A player may see it completely differently than a fan. A fan may see it completely differently than a team reporter. A team reporter may see it completely differently than a coach, and so on. From Roulette’s viewpoint, he says hockey and locker room culture is changing for the better, and at a faster rate than people may realize. “In our dressing room, if anything were to happen it’d be worked out instantly. We don’t let homophobia or racism slide. I think [when big news about racism from a team’s staff or players] comes out so quickly it’s kind of a good thing because it shows that these things are issues in the room that are dealt with in ways that need to be done. It doesn’t get swept under the rug as often as people think. And obviously for me, if anything would happen in that sense I’d speak out. I don’t sweep it under the rug. I think with today’s day and age with stuff happening like that it’s dealt with more than not dealt with. There isn’t stuff like that happening on a day-to-day basis. The big news just gets talked about because they’re big. I guess you could say it’s a different kind of viewpoint you can think about when it comes to hockey culture.”
Back in Saskatoon, the Blades participated in the Orange Shirt Society’s Orange Jersey Night, a project to help raise awareness about residential schools and their long-lasting effects on indigenous communities. The Blades donned the orange jerseys all February. While only the Canadian teams have Orange Jersey Nights, the Spokane Chiefs have Native American Appreciation Night, set for November 18 this year. Awareness nights have the potential to have a meaningful impact, both on players and fans, if done right. “It’s up to the team to decide what they want to do,” Roulette said. “If they want to host an awareness night [for indigenous people] they should hire indigenous artists to design the warmup jerseys. They should bring in one or two people to talk to the guys, or design the jerseys, or be a part of the awareness night in some way.”
When it comes to the NHL, there’s been a lot of controversy surrounding the league’s decision to do away with specialty jerseys, as well as the recent banning of Pride Tape. Themed jerseys of any kind have been disallowed as a result of various NHL players, such as Ivan Provorov or James Reimer, who elected not to wear the pride-themed jerseys on their teams’ pride night. “It really disappointed me seeing the amount of NHLers who refused to [wear the pride night jerseys],” Roulette said. “Like, it’s not affecting you. You’re wearing a warm-up jersey and then changing into your usual one fifteen minutes later. You’re not sacrificing anything to show support.”
Certain things, like the aforementioned decision to not wear the pride jersey, are small actions that add to a bigger message: that if you’re not in the majority, you’re not welcome in the sport. It may seem dramatic to some, but little signs of support go a long way, inviting more and more people into the world of hockey. Celebrating differences is crucial when building a community. “I think every NHL team should have an awareness night every home game,” Roulette said. “It’s so important for different cultures and communities to be celebrated and invited into the world of hockey.”
Reconnecting to Culture
“Because of how much hockey has taken over my life,” Roulette said, “I’m not as close to the culture as I’d want to be. I’ve been doing things to get closer, especially this summer. I tried to get out to both reserves, both my mom’s and dad’s. I got to go and support and check out Sun Dance, which is pretty sacred to our culture. I got to go to a couple powwows. Rode horses, had fun.”
Whether it be on or off the ice, Roulette is someone who stands up for what’s right and supports the people around him. His career in the WHL has been a long and successful one, and with one year to go, he has a bright future ahead of him.
Hockey culture is changing for the better because of players like Roulette.