After leaving his home on the Kitigan Zibi reserve in Quebec, 17-year old Gino Odjick found it tough to comply with the dress code of his new team, the Junior A Hawkesbury Hawks, just across the border in Ontario. A local men’s clothing store provided the youth with a nice sweater and a spiffy pair of corduroy pants. Everything was fine until just before his fourth game with the club, when he rushed into coach Bob Hartley’s office, pants ripped, sweater torn, hands covered in blood, but with a big smile on his face.
Out in the parking lot, Mr. Hartley found Mr. Odjick’s father, Joe, waiting in the car, also with a huge grin. There, in the trunk, was a dead deer, spied alongside the road and shot by the elder Mr. Odjick on the way to the rink. His son had gone into the woods to lug the bloodied animal back to the car, encountering a barbed-wire fence along the way.
“I will never forget those two smiles, for a job well done,” Mr. Hartley recalled years later. “To kill a deer and try to win a hockey game on the same day. Not many people can say they did that.”
The tale stands as a vivid illustration of the twin tracks that carried Mr. Odjick on his improbable journey from a self-styled “kid from the rez” to the National Hockey League. Best known as a bruising hockey enforcer, who became one of the most adored players in the history of the Vancouver Canucks, Mr. Odjick was also a full-blooded Algonquin, deeply committed to Canada’s First Nations. In many ways, despite his years in the NHL, including one memorable trip to the Stanley Cup final, Mr. Odjick never left the reserve. It’s where he grew up, and Vancouver’s Musqueam Reserve is where he often stayed during his time in the NHL, when his salary could have commanded a pick of downtown penthouses.
For Mr. Odjick, who died Jan. 15 of a heart attack, his roots were fundamental. One of only a handful of Indigenous players in the league when he joined the Canucks in 1990, he insisted on wearing No. 29, the number his father was given when forced into a far-away residential school as a boy. At the start of a hockey season, the player would often smudge his uniform and equipment with wafts of sweetgrass smoke. When he decided to quit drinking to better serve as an example to Indigenous youth, he prepared for abstinence with a sweat lodge ceremony and long talks with a medicine man.
For many years, Mr. Ojdick was also a keen observer and participant in Indigenous politics, a regular at meetings of the Assembly of First Nations and other gatherings. In 1997, while still with the Canucks, he campaigned for Musqueam’s Wendy Grant-John in her bid for leadership of the AFN. When the groundbreaking (albeit later cancelled) Kelowna Accord between Indigenous leaders, Ottawa and the provinces was signed in 2005, Mr. Odjick was there, too. During and after his hockey career, he visited reserves across the country, dedicating himself to eradicating poverty and inspiring Indigenous youth. “Gino took his fame and used it for the benefit of his people. He said: ‘This is who I am, and I want you to understand there is more to us than stereotypes,’ ” Ms. Grant-John said.
Of course, Mr. Odjick was best known to the public for his years in the National Hockey League. Not much was ordinary about his rambunctious career. During his dozen years in the NHL, he reached double digits in goals only once, but he dropped the gloves more than 150 times, often in rip-roaring brawls, in the days when most NHL teams employed so-called enforcers to protect their top goal scorers. He remains far and away the Canucks’ leader in penalty minutes, sitting in the sin bin for close to 35 hours during his eight years with the team.
At the same time, Mr. Odjick worked tirelessly to improve his hockey skills, was an occasional member of the team’s power play, and formed an unlikely, tight friendship with Russian Hall of Fame superstar Pavel Bure, whom he safeguarded on the ice while both were with Vancouver. They bonded as outsiders, with Mr. Bure’s initially halting English and Mr. Odjick’s Indigenous status, becoming known as “the Odd Couple.” Mr. Odjick named one of his sons after the Russian Rocket.
He evoked rare emotion from normally gruff coaches, who fell hard for his hockey heart, work ethic and dedication to the team. “He’s one of those players – I could easily say that I came to love him, you know,” said Pat Quinn, head coach for most of Mr. Odjick’s years with the Canucks, in an interview several months before Mr. Quinn died.
“Gino was my first pro,” remembered Bob Hartley, who was still working full-time at a factory when he began coaching in Hawkesbury. “We had a special bond right from the start. He was kind of like my son,” said Mr. Hartley, an NHL coach for 14 years.
Nor was there anything quite like the adulation showered on Mr. Odjick by the fans in Vancouver. Different from the huge cheers that greeted goals by Mr. Bure or saves by goaltender Kirk McLean, fans would salute the hard-nosed forward with chants of “Gino! Gino! Gino!” whenever Mr. Odjick was in a fight or made a notable play. They were always loudest in the seats high up in the arena, a tribute to his grinding effort and selfless play.
In 2014, when Mr. Odjick was diagnosed with a rare heart condition and given no more than a month or two to live, hundreds of fans gathered outside the hospital chanting his name. An experimental treatment subsequently provided another eight years of life, but his heart never fully recovered.
Though renowned for his fighting ability, Mr. Odjick was also a good skater with a hard shot, able to hold down a spot on his team’s third or fourth line. The year he spent time on the Canucks’ power play, he scored a career-high 16 goals. And there may never have been a louder roar at a hockey game than the night Mr. Odjick scored on a penalty shot against all-star goalie Mike Vernon. “I looked right, shot left,” he shrugged afterwards. Pat Quinn delayed sending out a new line so the raucous celebration could continue. “The roof just about came off the place,” Mr. Quinn said, likening the eruption to that greeting a Stanley Cup overtime goal.
Mr. Odjick ended his career in 2002 with the Montreal Canadiens, after receiving one bang on the head too many during a pre-season workout. The ensuing concussion presaged a number of troubles that befell Mr. Odjick after he hung up his skates. As with many enforcers, the constant pounding in bare-knuckled fights exacted a price. He suffered from serious migraines, depression and other issues that landed him in hospital several times.
At a symposium on concussions in early 2014, Mr. Odjick talked candidly about the damage done. Toward the end of his playing years, he sometimes had trouble finding the rink. He became addicted to being hit, he confessed. “It made me feel alive, that I was involved, sticking up for my teammates.”
Wayne Gino Odjick was born Sept. 7, 1970 in the town of Maniwaki, close to his reserve, 135 kilometres north of Ottawa. He was the only son, amid five daughters, of Giselle and Joe Odjick, a high-rise welder and labourer with a passion for hockey. The elder Mr. Odjick, scarred by his years in a distant residential school, couldn’t bear to see another lonely Indigenous youngster, so their house was always full of kids from other reserves attending school in Maniwaki. Bunk beds were everywhere, with girls upstairs and boys downstairs.
When young Gino wanted to play hockey, his father thought he was such a poor skater that he put him in figure skating for a year.
As a teenager, Gino rarely gave the NHL a thought, content to play for his reserve team on the local outdoor rink. When the Hawkesbury Hawks, impressed by his toughness during a town tournament, came calling, Mr. Odjick was out moose hunting. At one point during his rocky first season, he learned he was in danger of being cut. Mr. Odjick showed up at the rink the next day at 7 a.m. for extra practice. Meanwhile, he was taking a welding course in Ottawa, often hitchhiking 100 kilometres to and from Hawkesbury in below-zero weather for practices. “If that’s not commitment, I don’t know what is,” said Mr. Hartley, who saw something in the raw, determined youth that could be honed and developed. He persuaded the Laval Titans of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League to give him a tryout. The next year, Mr. Odjick was playing for Laval in the Memorial Cup.
Less than a year after that, he completed his remarkable run by suiting up for his first NHL game with the Canucks at the age of 20. Early on, he decked Chicago Blackhawks tough guy Stu (the Grim Reaper) Grimson. Then he fought the rugged Dave Manson. His place on the team was secure. Yet, Mr. Odjick sometimes had a hard go of it. For the first year or two, he experienced racial taunts, some from his own teammates, initially slow to accept him into their ranks. But he persevered, eventually becoming as beloved by his teammates as by the fans.
Away from the rink, Mr. Odjick demonstrated business acumen by purchasing the Musqueam Golf Course and helping Canucks owner and megadeveloper Francesco Aquilini broker real estate deals with local Indigenous groups. Mr. Odjick, who never married, fathered eight children with five women.
In an open letter to fans during his health crisis in 2014, Mr. Odjick mentioned his fervent hope that his career had helped open doors for other Indigenous kids. “I was just a little old Indian boy from the rez. If I could do it, so could they.”
Current Canucks defenceman Ethan Bear, a Cree from Saskatchewan, is one of those inspired by Mr. Odjick and other Indigenous players. Not long after Mr. Odjick’s death, Mr. Bear scored a goal against the Carolina Hurricanes. “I scored right after he passed,” an emotional Mr. Bear said after the game. “I think that’s pretty powerful. It was meant to be. Maybe he was there for me on that shot.”
Mr. Odjick leaves his sisters, Judy, Shelly, Debbie, Janique and Dina; and children, Ashley, Patrick, Russell, Joey, Bure, China, Toby and Rose.