Jordin Tootoo, the first member of Canada’s Inuit population to play professional hockey, was in Brandon, Manitoba, at the Westoba Place the same day the Everett Silvertips arrived for an Oct. 19 matchup with the Wheat Kings.
Tootoo, a 13-year NHL veteran, was announcing his retirement from professional hockey in the same building he credits for kick starting his career — Tootoo played for the Wheat Kings from 1999-2003.
The timing of Tootoo’s announcement and the Silvertips’ lone regular-season visit to Brandon was uncanny, as a long-time admirer of Tootoo’s was in the visiting dressing room.
That would be Silvertips forward Jalen Price, a member of the Wei Wai Kum First Nation out of Campbell River. Price looked up to Tootoo for overcoming adversity and, at times, discrimination — which is outlined in Tootoo’s book, “All the Way: My Life on Ice” — en route to a successful pro career.
Price has those same dreams of competing at a high-level of professional hockey and Tootoo explained to him what it takes for an aboriginal youngster to “make it” in a conversation between the two. Price took it to heart.
“I look up to him a lot,” Price said, “just because of what he went through as a younger kid.”
The Price family didn’t boast a lot in the terms of material possessions, but what it did provide was a robust family environment.
There could be upward of 10 family members at the Price household at anytime, which include’s Jalen’s mother, Kara, his father, Dustin, his younger brothers, Terrell and D.J., aunts, uncles and grandparents.
And in that house developed a strong family culture and an understanding of their indigenous roots. It’s something that Jalen thinks of every time he steps out on the ice.
“It’s really important to me,” he said. “The dancing and stuff, doing that stuff as a younger kid, brought my motivation up to play hockey and support all the aboriginal kids too.”
Jalen didn’t take to hockey until he was about 10 years old, Kara said, focusing mostly on soccer. It’s a deviation from the typical theme of hockey players popping on skates as soon as they can walk.
The late start didn’t stunt his passion for the game once he got going.
“He just lit up from there,” Kara said. “Just nonstop, he wanted to go and play and be on the ice every chance he could get.”
He eventually gained enough clout in the area to catch the eye of the Delta Hockey Academy in Delta, British Columbia, south of Vancouver, and he went on to play there.
His family made a major sacrifice in order for Jalen to take the next step in his hockey career, as both Kara and Dustin left their jobs to move with Jalen to Delta.
“He’s really family oriented, which made it tough for him to leave at first,” Kara said.
On the ice, Jalen fit in almost seamlessly. He led the team in his first year as a 14-year-old bantam with 33 points in 2015-2016 — current Lethbridge forward Dylan Cozens, who is projected to go top five in the upcoming NHL Draft, was second on the team with 31.
Price put up 26 points the next season at Delta before playing Junior “B” as a 16-year-old for the Campbell River Storm, which won the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League finals with Jalen as a point-per-game player in the playoffs.
In May 2018, Jalen competed with Team British Columbia at the 2018 National Aboriginal Hockey Championships in Membertou, Nova Scotia, and captured a gold medal, defeating Team Saskatchewan, 6-5, in overtime.
Selected in the third round of the 2016 Western Hockey League bantam draft by Medicine Hat, Price was traded to the Silvertips right before the season. He’s been in and out of the lineup most of the season.
It’s a been a major adjustment for Price, who had been a top-six forward at every stop of his career before cracking the WHL.
“It’s definitely different. I’m not a big fan of it,” Price said, “but just watching some of the older guys like Dewar and the way he carries himself is crazy, so it just drives me to work harder before and after practice.”
Although ice time has been limited for Jalen in his first WHL season in Everett, he’s shown flashes of being a productive player around the net, with four goals in 34 games.
The Silvertips believe with his 6-foot-1 frame, there’s a productive goal scorer in the future when the lineup opens up for him.
“He’s got good size, he’s got a good shot,” Silvertips coach Dennis Williams said. “He’s got the skill set and demeanor and I think he’s going to be a spot in our lineup this year and into the future. … He’s got to be a two-way power forward. When I see Jalen Price moving forward, that’s what I envision. Power forwards in this league are typically 20-to-25 goal scorers and big contributors up and down our lineup.”
Most of all, Price has impressed the coaching staff with his attitude.
“It’s an adjustment year for a lot of guys,” Williams said. “But I’m real happy with his approach, his demeanor. He comes to the rink and gets along with the guys well.
“He makes it hard,” Williams said of choosing his lineup, “because he plays the game right and he’s a good teammate, so you want to reward that as well.”
According to a story in the Toronto Globe and Mail in March 2018, when former Thunderbirds defenseman Ethan Bear made his NHL debut for the Edmonton Oilers, he became one of six indigenous players in the NHL. That list includes Everett native and Capitals forward T.J. Oshie and Canadiens goaltender Carey Price (Jalen says he’s frequently asked if there’s any relation, but there’s none).
Jalen is one of a handful of indigenous youngsters playing in the WHL — a group that includes teammate Connor Dewar, who is of Metis descent. Many of them share the same dreams of the trail blazers before them.
“It would be a dream come true. That’s the goal,” Price said of playing professional hockey. “It takes a lot of hard work. I’m going to not stop and hopefully get there one day.”
– Joshua Horton is a sports reporter with the Everett Herald, a Black Press-owned newspaper in Washington.