This is the debut 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.
“I live by two words: Tenacity and Gratitude” — Henry Winkler
Dwayne Jean Jr. outstripped two defensemen with ease but his shot bounced harmlessly off the goalie’s left pad. That should have been his only chance; for most, it would have been. But instead, with scarcely a millisecond to react and the puck still bouncing, he fired again. This time, it went in. From center ice to the goal line, the whole thing took less than five seconds.
It’s yet another example on a long list of how Jean Jr. lives his life. Drive, tenacity, determination—call it what you like, it’s written on his bones.
Family in Community
Growing up on a reserve, you get used to seeing the same people every day. “From your cousins, aunties, uncles, to my chapans, my kookums, my mushums*… everyone’s so close,” Jean Jr. said. This closeness, this tight-knit community, is reflected in how everyone takes care of each other. By taking in those who don’t have the support they need, the community works to give everyone the chance at life they deserve. “Some people on the reserve don’t always grow up with two parents, so we have people who give the younger kids that didn’t have the best lifestyle growing up a shot,” Jean Jr. continued. “My parents, for example. I’m a very fortunate kid, I grew up with five siblings and now my parents just adopted two kids from the reserve. We’re just trying to give these kids a chance like my parents gave me a chance at life, you know?”
Dwayne Jean Sr., founder of D Jean Enterprise, was born and raised on the Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, while Jean Jr.’s mother, Shawna Jean, is from Swan River Cree Nation. The two are major sources of inspiration for Jean Jr., providing not only encouragement but an example of who he wants to be and a living reminder to never give up on his dreams.
“They’ve really shown how much hard work it takes to get where you want, and I can see that in myself, how I’m trying to follow how hard my dad works, how hard my mom works. I’m trying to be like them. I’m giving 100% in everything I can, and just taking to heart that I can do anything I set my mind to, and whatever I want to do I can get there.”
“My dad’s had a crazy life. He grew up on the reserve his entire life. Everything he’s done he’s done himself. I’ve got to give big credits to my dad’s business and my parents.”
From Kennewick to Red Deer
“Hockey was just there when I needed it.”
With outdoor rinks in the winters and floor hockey in the summers, Jean Jr. fell in love with the sport at a young age. “When you grow up on the reserve, it’s sports all the time,” he said. “There’s not much stuff you can do, depending on what reserve you’re coming from, so growing up it was usually just hockey or baseball.”
Jean Jr. left home at eleven-years-old to further his hockey career. He attended many different schools and stayed with five different billet homes, not including family.
He signed with the Tri-City Americans in 2021. He played his first WHL game on October 1, 2021, and his first goal came just over three weeks later on the 23rd.
The same year, a series of tragedies struck the Jean family. Before joining the WHL, Jean Jr. lost his first cousin in March of 2021, then his niece in August of 2021. In December of 2021, only a few months after Jean Jr. made his debut in the Western League, his great grandfather passed. 2022 would not be kind to Jean Jr. either, nor his family. In January, his Aunt Sheila passed away. In April, he lost his great grandmother, then in June, his Aunt Karen.
The immense loss and heartbreak was already terrible, but nearly a thousand miles away from home, made the pain unimaginable. At the start of the 2022-23 season, Jean Jr. approached the Americans with the request to be traded to a team closer to home. The team dutifully honored it, sending him to the Red Deer Rebels. Chipewyan Prairie First Nation is roughly six hours from Red Deer, much closer than the sixteen hour drive from Kennewick, Washington.
On January 7, 2023, Dwayne Jean Sr. was the victim of a road rage incident, leaving him in a coma for a month and hospitalized for three more. Jean Jr. took some time off of hockey to focus on his family and his father’s healing before returning to the team later that season. Every game from that moment on was played for his father.
In the 2023 playoffs, after not seeing his mother much because of his father’s hospitalization, Jean Jr. scored his first goal of the playoffs with her in attendance. He dedicated the goal to her.
Despite the immense adversity, Jean Jr. has stayed strong, allowing himself to fall back on his family for support and offering it himself. He goes into the 2023-24 season optimistic. His father is doing much better, and Jean Jr. himself has the full year ahead of him.
Off The Ice
Off the ice, Jean Jr. reflects the values he was raised with. From promoting awareness nights like Orange Jersey Night, to his advocacy online for inclusion and awareness, he never stops working to ensure the kids back home know they’re welcome in the sport.
“I’m not just trying to live my own dream, I’m trying to live the dream of the younger kids who watch me grow up and want to be like me. That’s all I really have in the back of my mind, that I want to make Dwayne Jean Jr. who he is. I grew up playing hockey on the outdoor rink on the reserve. I was just on the ice with my cousins just doing what I loved and having fun with them. I want to give back to them. I have big pictures of what I want to do when I’m older and how I’m going to do that, but right now I’m just focusing on my hockey, focusing on making a name for the younger kids so they have someone to look up to. I want them to be able to say, ‘Well, Dwayne Jean Jr. did this, why can’t I do it?’”
Most teams in the WHL, primarily those in Canada, partake in Orange Jersey Night, a project created by the Orange Shirt Society to raise awareness and education about the history of residential schools and their residual effects on indigenous communities. Despite the progress when it comes to inclusion in the world of hockey, there’s still a long way to go. One night a year is one more than there was a few years ago, but it’s also only one night. “It’s just… maybe one more time than just one day of the year,” Jean Jr. said. “My people are the kind of people who grew up in this world first. They showed us the way and for that to be taken away… we’re just trying to start getting a little bit back here and there. There’s definitely more stuff [teams] can do to recognize all the people we lost, all the people who went through residential schools, everyone who went through all that just so I could even be here today. I’d love to see a little more recognition.”
Awareness nights in hockey have been a topic of debate, especially after the NHL’s decision to take away all specialty jerseys on themed nights. In the WHL, however, awareness nights like Orange Jersey Night, Pride Night, or even the Spokane Chiefs’ Neurodiversity Awareness Night continue with their themed jerseys. “I feel like [awareness nights] are effective,” Jean Jr. said. “I feel like they’re trying to give back to us, not that they haven’t already but with that going on in hockey, it’s real. There are kids who want to play in the Western League, there’re kids who want to make it to the next step in their lives. To have them recognize us makes all these aboriginal kids like myself really happy and grateful that they’re looking at us in that way.”
One of the reasons nights like Orange Jersey Night are needed is because hockey is a predominantly white sport. As of 2021, Zeppia reports that 72.8% of the hockey players in the United States are white, with “American Indian and Alaska Native” listed at only 0.3%. In October of 2022, the NHL reported that 84% of its workforce, including both staff and players, were white. With the aforementioned awareness nights, as well as initiatives to educate players of all ages on diversity, equity, and inclusion, hockey’s accessibility is slowly increasing. Despite these efforts, players of color still have a tougher time getting into the sport due to the racism they face, whether systemic or from a teammate on the ice.
“I didn’t face [discrimination] as much as the bigger names like Jordin Tootoo and all them did, but yeah, I had some backlash,” Jean Jr. said. “I’d hear things like ‘go back to the rez, you dirty native,’ but at the end of the day I can’t really take that to heart because if they’re calling me that, I can’t really do anything. That’s their thoughts, that’s their problem. I have to look at it like I’m the same as them, we’re here for the same thing, trying to make that next jump. If they want to try and stop me, that’s on them, and I’ll just keep doing my own thing. I’m equal, I’m the same as you, I’m the same as the person next to me.”
Talking to Dwayne, the main goal he highlighted was his dedication to giving back to his community. Not only does he want to excel to set an example for the younger kids back home, but he understands and recognizes the importance of giving back the respect and support given to him. “I try to give back as much as I can,” he said. “Going to the reserve when I can or going to see the elders. I haven’t been back to the reserve as much just with hockey and with a lot going on in my life.”
“When I look at my ancestors,” he continued, “I look back into my past, from where it all started to where I am now. They gave me this moment and time in my life. I may just be a kid from a reserve, but I’m trying to make a bigger name for the younger reserve kids growing up. The way I look at it is that I’m very lucky to be in the position I am. I’m very grateful to my ancestors. My grandma in the past, my great-grandmas, my kookum now, and of course my parents. Just with growing up on the reserve has given me a different look at two different lives: a bit of an [isolated] life on a reserve with all your relatives, compared to a big city life. I feel like I can adapt to both of them. By doing that, it’s giving me another opportunity to show the younger kids on the reserve—I’m trying to give them a shot at what I’m doing.”
Spirituality is an important thing for indigenous communities and is something Jean Jr. is working to reconnect with, especially as he’s getting older. “I ask myself why I believe in the Creator, and it’s because the Creator is giving me this life. I want to give back to Him. During the season, I like to smudge and I like to ask the Creator to help me with whatever I’m going through, just to help me and keep my mind focused. As I get older I’ve been really looking to get into the deeper culture of going to powwows, sweat ceremonies and cultural practices. Just trying to reconnect with everything.”
Inspiration in Hockey
With big names in the National Hockey League like Zach Whitecloud, who just won the Stanley Cup with the Vegas Golden Knights, or T.J. Oshie, long-time forward for the Washington Capitals, Jean Jr. has a number of indigenous players in the National Hockey League to look up to himself. “I look at the big players like T.J. Oshie,” he said. “Jordin Tootoo’s one that’s definitely high up for me. He’s the kind of guy I want to make myself into. Just reading his story, we have kind of a similar story, you know… I wouldn’t say really similar but how he was growing up and his journey is close to mine.”
Moving away at eleven years old was Jean Jr.’s first chance to take his hockey to the next level. Regarding his move to the city, he said, “Especially if you’re a kid coming out of a reserve, you know, you’re not coming from a big city. When I first moved to the city I was scared, but you know what? People are great.” Having those players to look up to and follow in their footsteps was a big inspiration to Jean Jr., who hopes to be that person for the next generation.
Jean Jr. is the embodiment of the word respect. He only asks for respect to be returned, in the form of education, awareness, and simply kindness. “I wish people would understand native people aren’t given everything in life. I know a lot of people look at it in that way, as just free money from the government, but I mean, there’s a lot more in the past than there is now, you know? And I wish there was just more respect. When I look at you, I’m going to respect your culture, I’m going to respect your history, your background, and so on, and I wish everyone did that. We’ve come a long way and are starting to finally get recognized for everything we’ve done and everything we’ve been through.”
Dwayne Jean Jr. talks about wanting to be an inspiration, to set an example for kids like him, and to pave the way for the next generation. But he’s already doing that. His level of maturity far surpasses that of the average nineteen-year-old, and people of all demographics can learn something from the way he handles adversity, sets and works towards his objectives, and his general outlook on life. And if there’s one thing to know about Jean Jr., it’s that eventually, one way or another, he achieves his goals.
*Chapan: great grandparents