The odds are stacked against any kid in Pimicikamak who laces up their skates and dreams of the big leagues.
In an northern Manitoba community like theirs, also called Cross Lake First Nation, there are no scouts frequenting their games or state-of-the-art off-ice training facilities calling their names.
And yet three lifelong friends from the community more than 500 kilometres north of Winnipeg — Saige McKay, Carrigan Umpherville and Kennesha Miswaggon — have all carved an unlikely path into elite, collegiate-level hockey, making them role models for not only female players but also Indigenous players.
The young women began their post-secondary hockey careers this fall, just months after Brady Keeper put Pimicikamak on the map by becoming the first person from the community to play in the NHL.
Back home, people are asking Saige’s mother, Anna McKay, how their own daughters can play against the best.
“We told them the first thing they have to do is move away from home, unfortunately,” the high school principal said.
A dream realized
McKay and Umpherville are rookies with the women’s hockey team at Long Island University, on the outskirts of New York City; Miswaggon plays with the University of British Columbia.
McKay didn’t grow up thinking that high-level hockey was in the cards for her. She says it’s still hard to believe sometimes.
“I enjoy it so much,” she said, hours after she landed back in Manitoba for a holiday visit. “I love living in New York City. I think it’s crazy — it’s honestly a dream come true.”
They sacrificed a lot to get where they are. The girls grew up playing on boys’ teams. They’d travel hours each way to get to their games.
They got their break when they headed “down south,” as McKay puts it, to southern Manitoba. A scout noticed McKay and Umpherville and recruited them to play for the Boston Shamrocks of the Junior Women’s Hockey League.
“We had to move in order to get recognized,” Umpherville says of her winding path to college.
She and McKay returned to Manitoba after one season in Boston to play for Pilot Mound Hockey Academy in 2018-19.
They were then recruited to Long Island for the college team’s inaugural season. They play in Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association — the NCAA’s highest level of hockey in the U.S.
Bond still strong
Miswaggon, now 18, also left home, playing three years of high school hockey with Balmoral Hall School in Winnipeg. She now controls the blue line for the UBC Thunderbirds.
“I didn’t expect to come this far growing up, coming from a small community,” Miswaggon told NHL.com in an interview published earlier this month.
“You don’t expect to get an opportunity, so just having my best friends go out to the States and me to the West Coast, it’s really crazy.”
Even with Miswaggon separated geographically from her friends, the trio say their bond won’t waver.
Miswaggon and McKay planned to get tattoos during the Christmas break that say “No Matter Where” — a testament to their friendship. McKay and Umpherville — both 17 years old — already have matching shamrock tattoos on their forearms from their time in Boston.
“We’ve been best friends since Grade 3,” McKay said of Umpherville. “It’s really nice to have my best friend with me at university.”
McKay had five points with the Sharks this season before the Christmas break. She was named a top defender in the Canadian Sport School Hockey League last year.
Umpherville is already Long Island’s leading scorer, with seven goals and nine assists. Last season, the forward led Pilot Mound in scoring.
Tragedy to triumph
The trio’s on-ice adventures are the talk of town. They helped run a hockey camp while home over the holidays.
“They just look amazed every time they see us on the ice,” Umpherville said of the community’s support.
“People say they are really proud of us. And they tell us to keep going.”
Their hockey performances are changing the way their community sees itself.
It wasn’t long ago that Pimicikamak, a community of about 6,000, declared a state of emergency after six suicides over a two-month period, and 140 attempts in two weeks alone.
At the time, in 2016, First Nations representatives, politicians and experts all said the community was seriously lacking in resources and opportunities for young people, leaving many to despair of their futures.
McKay’s mother, Anna, says it meant a lot to the kids when Keeper — an undrafted defenceman — played his first game with the NHL’s Florida Panthers in March.
They swelled with pride again when McKay, Umpherville and Miswaggon were showcased on the NHL’s website.
“They had it posted all over the school.… That’s how proud they are of them,” said Anna McKay.
“The message they send is ‘You can be anything you want,’ and that’s what I encourage the students [to believe].”
The three players are taking the responsibility of being role models to other young girls, as well as other Indigenous hockey players, to heart. They hope to keep playing high-level hockey for years to come.
“I’m obviously trying to help young players as much as I can, and hopefully they follow in my footsteps,” Umpherville said.