Panthers star Brandon Montour's 'amazing year' celebrated by family, First Nations community
It's the second period in another intense NHL playoff game. On this particular Sunday, it's Game 3 in the series that has pitted the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Florida Panthers.
For most fans of the Leafs, the Eastern Conference second round has been, excitedly, the farthest their team has made it in 19 years.
But for supporters of the blue and white in Six Nations of the Grand River who were watching the game at a community centre, loyalties were torn. One of their own, Brandon Montour, is a star for the other team.
Arihwaiens Martin, who helped organize the watch party at Gathering Place by the Grand, said his entire family are Toronto fans, adding: "The Panthers, for me, [are] important because Brandon's on there. Number 62.
"I knew there would be the Leafs fans [watching]. That's through and through here on Six Nations. But then there's Panthers, you know — hometown hero, right?"
While adults watched the game on a big screen inside, about a dozen or so kids were running around in the front foyer, hockey sticks in hand, slapping pucks into a small net. For them, the defenceman — who, as of earlier Friday, had scored nine points for the Panthers in 11 games during these playoffs — is someone they look up to.
"It's exciting to know that a Native is playing in the NHL," said Jobi Isaacs, 13.
Jobi said he's been playing hockey since he's "been able to go on the ice." Like Montour, he's from Six Nations, the most populous First Nations reserve in Canada.
Is Jobi the next Montour? "Maybe," he said with a shy smile and a shrug.
Garett Longboat, 11, plays with the Hagersville Hawks. He wants to make the NHL one day, and said Montour's playoff performance is inspiring.
Bella Beaver, 11, was standing nearby in a Leafs jersey. She plays for the Haldimand Rivercats and is sticking with Toronto. "Go Maple Leafs!" she shouted.
The Leafs enter Friday night's game down 3-1, so it's a must win as the series returns to Toronto.
Esenogwas Jacobs was also at the watch party — a fundraiser for local language immersion school Kawenni:io — with her partner Rick Brant, his six-year-old son Jamie and their 15-month-old.
"I'm not much of a hockey fan," Jacobs said. "[Jamie] just started ice skating, so he's really into hockey…. We told him there was an Ogwehoweh guy playing and he was so pumped. He doesn't really know who he is, but he's excited that it's someone who we know that's from here."
Aunt gets 'complete joy' seeing Montour's success
Montour's star has been rising since the 29-year-old, born in nearby Brantford, Ont., was drafted into the NHL by the Anaheim Ducks in 2014. He played with the Ducks for nearly three seasons before being traded to Buffalo in 2019 and then to Florida in 2021.
A goal by Montour on April 30, with one minute left in the third period — the goal that tied the game against the Boston Bruins and helped send the Panthers on to the next round — caught the attention of many.
"This week has been crazy," Montour's aunt, Jaime Lynne Montour, told CBC Hamilton earlier this week.
"The further it goes, the more intense it gets, especially for those that know us and know that that's our family, right?"
WATCH | Jaime Lynne Montour speaks with Aicha Smith-Belghaba from CBC News:
Jaime Lynne, who's been watching Montour play since he was a kid and whose children have watched him their whole lives, said the moment feels "big."
"You hear from people across the nation, across Turtle Island, and they know your name? … To see your last name in the lights like that? Like, you know for a fact the ancestors, they're so proud."
Jaime Lynne said Montour "had great potential his whole life," and was always a great hockey and lacrosse player. She credits her family, including her parents and her brother, Montour's father, for helping to create "such greatness."
She recalls going to a game in Buffalo and her son choked up even before they had reached their seats, just seeing Montour warm up.
"I can't limit it to how it actually feels with one word. It is this overall, just complete joy that this person who I'm connected with, has truly found his purpose, and can truly excel and bring awareness for Indigenous communities, Indigenous children — give hope, where fear once limited us from being able to step outside that comfort, you know?"
Speaking to media ahead of Game 2 against Toronto last week, Montour said the support from back home "is huge."
"A lot of fans are rooting for us," he said.
WATCH | Florida's Brandon Montour shows why he's celebrated back home in Ontario, scoring in a playoff game in Toronto:
Even diehard Leafs fans have been admiring Montour's on-ice performances.
Jaime Lynne recounted watching a recent game in a sports bar in Ontario, surrounded by blue and white.
"Me and my son are sitting there in our Florida Panthers [jerseys]," she said, recalling getting some boos from the crowd, until someone noticed her jersey was signed and asked about it.
"'Well, it's my nephew,'" she told them. "And all of a sudden, people's attitudes switch, right? Like, that's your family. They're like, 'He's doing amazing, he's having an amazing year. But you know, can you just tell him to stop?'"