Charly Washipabano had the surprise of his life when a letter arrived at his home in Chisasibi one day in July.

The 18-year-old was told he’d been chosen for Team Indigenous, an elite squad created and coached by Ojibway hockey legend Ted Nolan.

Washipabano was joining 22 other Native teenagers from across Canada as a founding member of the Major A-level team, which is representing Canada at the top-calibre Universal Players Hockey Tournament in Finland from Aug. 4 to 11.

After a three-day hockey camp in Thunder Bay, Ont., the youths flew off to Finland to compete against the best up-and-coming hockey talent in the world.

Teams are flying in from Russia, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Germany and the United States. Team Indigenous is the only Canadian crew.

“This can’t be real,” Washipabano thought when he first saw the letter. At the end, there was another surprise. The letter was signed by Ted Nolan. “He has been a rolemodel of mine for a few years now,” Washipabano said.

The team is Nolan’s brainchild. Winner of the 1997 NHL Coach of the Year Award, Nolan was assistant coach of the Hartford Whalers and head coach of the Buffalo Sabres for two seasons. Before that, he played pro hockey for seven years — including stretches at the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburg Penguins — until a back injury forced him off the ice.

Nolan has also devoted a lot of his time over the past 20 years to meeting Native kids and talking to them about life.

Last year, he married these two passions – hockey and helping youth — into the idea of a national hockey program for Native kids. He got enthusiastic support from the Assembly of First Nations.

The idea wasn’t just to develop Native athletic talent, but also to help youngsters deal with social problems. “We’re not trying to develop professional players. We’re trying to change lives through hockey,’ Nolan told The Nation.

“We have a lot of talented kids, very talented. But for some reason, some of them lose their path along the way. We want to help them straighten out their path. We have to get our kids staying in school.”

Nolan recalled his own humble beginnings growing up in Garden River, northern Ontario, with no indoor plumbing, no heat and sometimes not enough to eat. “Somehow I fought through that and made it to the NHL. I didn’t have that much talent,” he said modestly. “But I knew how to work. If I could do it, geez, anyone can.”

Nolan hopes Team Indigenous will be a long-term project. He also wants to develop a girls’ hockey program and national Bantam and Midget championships.

Meanwhile, Charly Washipabano’s eyes are set on Finland. Playing hockey far from home since age 11, it’s a dream come true.

“This could be a major turning point,” he said. “I never expected it. I’m really psyched.”