When Winston Day Chief steps out onto the ice for the Rapid City Rush, he is more than a gifted young hockey player. He is also a Native American athlete who has skated his way into the complicated arena of race relations in western South Dakota. In a sport that bleeds, he is helping to heal old wounds.
"You know, it isn't often that you'll find 5,000 South Dakotans in Western South Dakota cheering for an Indian kid," says Brandon Ecoffey, an Oglala Lakota journalist and hockey fan from Rapid City. "You know, and the way that Day Chief plays the game with his ability and hard work, it's something that we can all really come together and support."
And it isn't just Day Chief, a 26-year-old Blackfoot from the Blood Reserve in southern Alberta. Rush teammate and fellow Canadian Justin Sawyer is of Ojibwe descent. At 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, Sawyer plays a different role on the ice than Day Chief.
But Ecoffey believes both have hustled their way into the hearts of non-Native hockey fans, while inspiring Native Americans in western South Dakota - a people known for their basketball skills and passion - to celebrate a different sport.
"Winston Day Chief and Justin Sawyer are two players that connect not only with Native fans who are new to the sport but non-Native fans through their play," Ecoffey says.
Sawyer carries a big stick on the ice, but also values his impact in race relations.
"I think it's great," Sawyer says. "People are starting to realize that we all just love hockey and we're all friends, so it's great."
Day Chief also celebrates the unexpected bonus he and his teammate offer the community.
"It's nothing I really plan on. But obviously that's always a good thing, to put people together," Day Chief said.
Ecoffey got together with hockey during his college years at Dartmouth College and believes in the sports-unifying potential for Rapid City, a community long troubled by racial conflicts. As managing editor of the Native Sun News, he explores those conflicts with guidance from publisher Tim Giago, a nationally-recognized Native American journalist. Giago led racial-reconciliation efforts more than 20 years ago. Ecoffey hopes to follow that example in his journalism, part of which is aimed at covering the Rush and its Native players. There are signs that Day Chief and Sawyer are reaching Native youth.
"The last little bit I've been coaching and noticed that there's quite a few Native American kids playing hockey at this age," center Konrad Reeder said. "I think it's great for the community and for all the kids involved."
Reeder believes talented Native hockey players will lead Native kids into the sport.
"I think any time you can see somebody that you can relate to a little bit easier, and you see somebody who looks just like you who plays the game at such a high level, you know, instead of playing basketball you're going to maybe want to play hockey," Reeder said.
Day Chief and Sawyer reach out to the community in appearances beyond the ice, something Rush Coach Joe Ferras believes benefits all kids, but perhaps especially Native youth.
"And it's great in Rapid City with both Winston and Justin being Native American, and you know their great leadership role for the young men to see that with hard work, you know, and being diligent in what they do with their personal life and professional life they can be very successful and the young kids can look up to both of them," Ferras said.