Ryan Francis, a 27-year-old Mi’kmaw, is one of three finalists for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award for his work with the Nova Scotia Aboriginal Girls’ Hockey Program.
The program, which operates in Truro, Eskasoni First Nation and Membertou First Nation, was launched in 2020 as a way to break down barriers so Indigenous girls can see themselves on the ice.
Francis is co-founder and works behind the scenes to ensure Mi’kmaq communities feel heard and have the resources to support their athletes.
“I have a responsibility to do this because of how the community has supported me throughout my athletic journey,” said Francis, who is a member of Acadia First Nation.
The Willie O’Ree Award is given to an individual who has made a significant positive change to their community, culture or society through the sport of hockey.
The winner will be determined by fan voting and the weighted votes of Willie O’Ree, the NHL’s first black hockey player, NHL and sponsor MassMutual, according to an NHL press release. Fans can vote until April 17.
A solid support
Francis grew up off reserve in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, known as the birthplace of NHL star Sidney Crosby. Francis started playing hockey at age six and played until age 20, including two years in the American Collegiate Hockey Association.
He always felt the support of the Mi’kmaq Nation and often found financial support from Acadia First Nation, a community with six reserves and landholdings in the southwest region of Nova Scotia.
Francis says that by working with the Indigenous Girls Hockey Program, he consults with communities such as Eskasoni and Membertou First Nations to find out what they need to develop Mi’kmaq talent.
He then reaches out to partners like Hockey Nova Scotia, Hockey Canada and other sport institutions to let them know exactly what the girls need, such as equipment and resources.
“At the end of the day, it’s making sure it’s the voices of the community that we respond to,” Francis said.
To date, 190 athletes have participated in the Aboriginal women’s hockey program.
While Francis isn’t comfortable with the spotlight that the award nomination has brought, he hopes a brighter light will be shone on Mi’kmaw athletes and that all sports will become more inclusive.
Erin Denny is a Mi’kmaw hockey player who was coached by Francis during his time with Team Atlantic. Denny says Francis is a great coach and a humble, selfless person who often puts others first.
“He always tries to give back to the community,” Denny said, adding that she couldn’t think of anyone more deserving of the award.
Francis asked Denny to help coach the young girls in the aboriginal women’s hockey program, which she says instills a lot of confidence in the girls.
“If I had had this Aboriginal women’s hockey program when I was younger, I definitely would have felt more comfortable and had more fun,” Denny said.
She sees the program as an important step in building capacity for women’s hockey in Nova Scotia. This can help athletes navigate the various skills camps, spring teams, and other opportunities they may apply for.
Francis has “the will to make things happen”
Ken Bagnell, CEO of Canadian Sport Center Atlantic, has worked with Francis on different projects over the past eight years, and says Francis is dedicated and tireless in helping to break down barriers for Indigenous people in sport.
He believes the success of the Aboriginal women’s hockey program is a testament to Francis’ efforts.
“It goes to show that anything can happen if you have the will to make things happen, and Ryan has that will,” Bagnell said.
Bagnell says the entire Nova Scotia sport community is proud of him.