Quebec hockey fans may best remember John Chabot as a young centre for the Montreal Canadiens. Indeed, Chabot has enjoyed a hockey career as an NHL player and coach that can be considered successful by any standard.
Today, Chabot is still deeply involved in the game, but not behind the bench of an NHL squad. Since giving up his post as Assistant Coach of the New York Islanders, where he worked with the legendary Ted Nolan, Chabot has turned his focus and considerable understanding of hockey, coaching and mentoring toward helping develop young hockey players and coaches in First Nations communities across Canada.
Working with Right To Play (www.RightToPlay.ca), an international organization committed to improving the lives of children by using the power of sport and play for development, health and peace, Chabot is actively involved in developing and delivering hockey skills and coaching clinics as part of Right To Play’s First Nations Program.
“Right To Play is an organization that has tried to set up a legacy after every Olympics that is held,” explains Chabot. “In Canada, with the Olympics last year, they set up programs with First Nations communities in northern Ontario – programs for implementing values, leadership and self-worth through after-school programs. They use education as a tool to keep kids out of trouble, and they bring me up to run hockey programs a few times each year with coaching clinics attached.”
However, had it not been for a couple of timely phone calls, Chabot may have never developed the coaching experience that he now possesses and shares with young aspiring coaches.
Chabot, an Algonquin from Kitigan Zibi, was born in PEI but attended high school in Hull, Quebec and currently calls Ottawa home. Hockey has been a part of his life since he was very young. In fact, his first success came early, when he was drafted first overall in the 1979 QMJHL Draft by the Hull Olympiques. He was later named QMJHL MVP and Player of the Year in 1981-82, a season during which he racked up 143 points and led the Sherbrooke Castors to a QMJHL Championship and berth in the Memorial Cup. The Castors were eventually defeated in the Memorial Cup Final by a Kitchener Rangers team that included future NHL stars like Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis and Brian Bellows.
After being drafted in the 2nd round of the 1980 NHL Entry Draft by the Canadiens, Chabot went on to play over 500 games in the NHL with the Habs, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings before continuing his pro-hockey career in Europe with teams in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, as well as two brief stints with Canada’s national team.
While it was not part of Chabot’s plan, he quickly joined the coaching ranks upon returning from Europe at the end of his playing career. “I left Germany in 2001 and did not know what I was going to do. I let some signs come about before deciding what to do. I got a call from Charlie Henry on December 23 of that year asking me if I was interested in coaching his hockey team, the (QMJHL) Hull Olympiques. And I said I am interested, but I have never coached before. I hadn’t even thought of coaching.”
Within days of that conversation, Chabot was behind the Olympiques’ bench working alongside Benoit Groulx. His return to the team where he broke into Junior hockey lasted two years before Chabot decided that it wasn’t what he really wanted. But while his days in Gatineau appeared over, his time behind the bench was not.
“I started to do more trips up north, but when I was in (Gatineau) I still spent time with the team,” recalls Chabot.
“And then, I was in NWT and I got a call asking whether I was interested in being a head coach with the Acadie-Bathurst Titan. I said ‘sure’. I thought at the time, maybe I’d try to get back into the NHL as a coach or an assistant coach. Then I spent two years as an assistant with the New York Islanders and my contract was not renewed, and that was fine with me.”
Having achieved his goal of making it back to the NHL, the time had come for Chabot to refocus on what he felt had become his real passion.
“Like with anything, to be a successful coach you have got to have a passion,” says Chabot. “As a coach I did not have that, not like when I was playing. Coaching is not what I want to do full time. This is that I want to do. I want to work with Right To Play, I want to work with kids in the north, and one of the things I am trying to do now is mentor coaches year round. I work with the kids, but I also work with the coaches on practice presentation, game preparation and the other key parts of coaching.”
Right To Play first initiated the PLAY (Promoting Life Skills in Aboriginal Youth) Program in partnership with Sandy Lake First Nation and Moose Cree First Nation. The PLAY Program aims to limit the challenges and build on the strengths of Aboriginal youth and their communities, while supporting the value of culture and identity. A key component of the program is the promotion of youth engagement through leadership activities, volunteer work and relationship building with other members of the community.
Part of the PLAY Program, Hockey for Development takes a five-pronged approach to teaching life skills through hockey, including the Coach Certification and On-Ice Hockey Clinic Components that Chabot is deeply involved in.
The Coach Certification Component aims to support coaches and referees to meet the following objectives:
• Gain a general understanding of how Right To Play activities can be integrated in hockey sessions and future practices
• Identify healthy attitudes, skills or information that children can acquire with Right To Play activities
• Become certified by Hockey Canada
• Be enabled to use hockey-coaching skills outside of their community (for example, in the Little Bands Youth Hockey Tournament).
The On-Ice Hockey Clinic Component, led by John Chabot with support from a team of Hockey Canada-certified coaches and Right To Play staff, provides children, youth and adults with hockey skills regardless of their previous experience. This leg of the program aims to coach children and youth in a variety of lessons ranging from skating and stick-handling to shooting and passing. The clinic culminates in a friendly one-hour game. The objectives of this part of the program for children and youth include:
• Strengthening hockey skills in the areas of skating, passing, shooting and stick-handling in an enjoyable and safe environment
• Learning new drills that teach players how to work as partners and in teams
• Developing new friendships and relationships with peers
• Having an enjoyable and lasting experience
Adam Fiddler, Sandy Lake First Nation Chief, sees positive results coming from the PLAY Program. “This is a tremendous opportunity for the young people of Sandy Lake. It’s very exciting to see the young boys and girls of the community have the opportunity to be able to get on the ice, to have new equipment, to be able to skate, to have coaching, and to be able to have encouraging parents,” Fiddler stated in a recent report.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity not just on the ice, but it gives them skills for their daily lives. It gives them life skills, and that is what this is all about. It’s not just about winning hockey games, but it is about learning skills that they don’t even know that they’re learning. They will use these skills to become positive, contributing members of our community, and that is what leads to a better community.”
For Chabot, a big part of part of working with young coaches is not just helping them achieve Hockey Canada certification. It has more to do with developing sustainable programs in small communities and eliminating negative perceptions and intimidation that new coaches often feel.
“I think the biggest misconception from people in the north is that coaching is hard; that you have to have all these diplomas from Hockey Canada, that you had to have played the game,” continues Chabot.
“It helps to have played, but just being there is the most important thing. And you will learn. Every coach has to start somewhere. It does not have to be intimidating. You have to take the intimidation factor out and some of the courses and camps can do that,” he said.
“We are going up to Moose Cree to set up a coaching clinic like we did last year. We will go up and implement what was taught on the ice, and try to extend it over the winter. And then go back later in the winter and continue that process, so when we leave when our four-year mandate is up, that the community has qualified coaches who are not intimidated and not afraid to tell players, ‘yeah, we are going to play games today but we are going to practice for 40 minutes and play for 15’ or whatever the case,” explains Chabot.
“Cuz coaching isn’t hard. It is just how you present yourself and present your practice. Anybody can coach, but coaches that have the right frame-of-mind and work very hard at it will be successful.”
The hockey world is not the only place where Chabot has not been intimidated. He also owns Anishinabeg Communications (www.thepeoplefirst.com), an Ottawa-based company that specializes in providing a variety of business services to First Nations communities and businesses.
“Anishinabeg is all about helping to procure government contracts, First Nations contracts, and private contracts. I enjoy it because it is a different aspect that I was never involved with before. It’s fun meeting people and pushing what we have. It is along the line of what other races do, where they support each other. Just because a white company can do something, why not give it to an Indian group that does the same thing. Why don’t we help each other?
“We do a lot of backstabbing in our communities,” says Chabot directly. “There are people trying to make themselves a name off the reserve and they are put down instead of being supported and pushed up. And I think the more people we have pushing up, the more successful we are off-reserve, then the more successful we will be on-reserve.”
Then he adds, “Just because we are a First Nations company, doesn’t mean we are a second-rate company. We are as good as anybody.”
Whether he is on the ice, behind the bench or in the boardroom, Chabot is having an impact, and it is First Nations communities that are seeing the benefit.