Local hockey still thriving in spite of national scandal, say former NHL players now coaching kids

Five-year-old George King says he loves hockey because it's 'fun.' His dad, Dwight King, won two Stanley Cup championships and now coaches George's under-7 hockey team with the Meadow Lake Minor Hockey Association in northern Saskatchewan. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)
Five-year-old George King says he loves hockey because it's 'fun.' His dad, Dwight King, won two Stanley Cup championships and now coaches George's under-7 hockey team with the Meadow Lake Minor Hockey Association in northern Saskatchewan. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)

On a weekend morning, former NHL players Dwight and DJ King chase tiny skaters in a game of freeze tag, as squeals of laughter echo through the arena at Flying Dust First Nation, 300 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

The King brothers sprinkle in some stickhandling and shooting drills while also scooping up kids who felt the urge to make a quick snow angel.

Far away from the fame and money of professional hockey, the Kings, who are Métis, run hockey camps in Indigenous communities and volunteer as coaches for four to six-year-olds, including their sons, Drew and George.

"We have three rules when we go on the ice. We're going to work hard, we're going to try our best and we're going to have fun," said 38-year-old DJ King, who played six seasons in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals.

Bonnie Allen/CBC
Bonnie Allen/CBC

At six feet three inches tall, DJ was known as a tough enforcer through his junior hockey days and NHL career. Today, he enforces traffic rules in a game of "Red light, green light" and throws in some purple lights — to cue dancing — much to the delight of children.

Hockey season is underway in rinks across Canada after months of scrutiny and scandals related to Hockey Canada's mishandling of sexual assault allegations. The federal sports minister said there is a "systemic problem" of sexual violence and toxic masculinity in Canada's hockey culture that Hockey Canada has failed to change.

Public outcry has prompted headlines that assert Canadians' love of hockey has wavered.

But that's certainly not the case here.

A love for the game

Don Somers/CBC
Don Somers/CBC

Enrolment in the under-7 (U7) division is up even higher than before the pandemic in this northern Saskatchewan community, which includes Flying Dust First Nation and Meadow Lake, a city of 5,300 people.

"So that shows there's still a desire and still a love for the game, and kids show up and still want to work hard, smile and have fun, and that's the important part," said Dwight King, 33, who won Stanley Cup championships with the L.A. Kings in 2012 and 2014.

"I see grassroots hockey still thriving and still a big part of Canadian culture."

Getty Images
Getty Images

DJ's son, Drew, and Dwight's son, George, say they love hockey. Their favourite players? Their dads, of course.

Unwavering commitment

The King family's love for hockey is deep and their commitment is unwavering.

Dwight says his parents, Dwayne and Donna, hauled four kids to minor hockey during long, cold winters. He and DJ rose through the ranks to play in the NHL, while their sisters, Dayna King and Danene Kopperud, played for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies women's hockey team.

"That was our childhood. That's what I remember, is just always being at the rink," said Kopperud, 36, while watching her four-year-old daughter's hockey practice. Kopperud said playing hockey taught her valuable life lessons and she wishes the same for her daughter, nieces and nephews.

"Hockey has always been a part of our life and it's so nice to pass it on to the next generation."

Don Somers/CBC
Don Somers/CBC

Keep the focus on the kids

Dwight acknowledges that there's "dark stuff" that needs to be dealt with related to elite hockey culture and sexual assault allegations, and he and DJ both applaud any efforts to fix systemic issues.

"First and foremost, it's good that [Hockey Canada] is cleaning up their mistakes and what has been pushed to the side," said Dwight.

It won't distract the King brothers, though, who say their focus is "local" and working with kids.

"I'm not downplaying it," said DJ. "But if a little kid doesn't have to be involved in the big picture, you keep 'em out of it and you try to make the changes before they even have to know about it, right?"

WATCH | Former NHLers return home to Sask. to coach kids: 

"I think I'm doing my part. I'm not the only one. It's one of those things where bad news always travels quicker than good news," added DJ. "There's so many rinks just like this one all around Saskatchewan, all around Canada, where there's so much positive."

As practice wraps up, the kids kneel at centre ice for a chat with their coaches. Dwight leans on his stick and tells the kids he wants to ask them some questions.

"Did we have fun today?"

The players scream: "Yeah!"

"Did we work hard?" "Yeah!"

"Did we listen? "Yeah!"

Bonnie Allen/CBC
Bonnie Allen/CBC

For the Kings, their focus is family, community and their love of the game and for their kids.

Before they exit the ice, the small players raise their sticks and shout: "One, two, three, hockey is the best."