Described as “a pleasant surprise” and a “diamond in the rough,” Ryan Weistche is the next Cree NHL hopeful to look out for.

Now 20, he’s been skating on ponds around his home in Waskaganish since he was two-and-a-half years old, but only began playing organized hockey four years ago. He was discovered at a native hockey tournament in Timmins, Ontario back in February of 1999.

The next year he was invited to the Soo Greyhounds in Sault Ste-Marie on the advice of the assistant coach who had seen him play. He ended up being the top point getter among first year players and earned rookie-of-the-year honours. These days he plays centre with the Junior A OCN Blizzards, located in The Pas, Manitoba.

Weistche made the move down south like most hockey players who have the dream of playing in the NHL. The move south meant a higher calibre of hockey, as well as the bonus of possible notice by an NHL scout. The scouts don’t seem to like to travel too far north.

Described as a very productive offensive player, Weistche seems to have nowhere to go but up. Even though he’s is said to be a “late bloomer,” he is said to be one of those players who will get better with time and experience.

After a year in the Soo, Weistche ended up playing in the Maritime Junior Hockey League for a couple of years, where he was named to the all-star team his first year. He then gained further recognition when he captured the fastest skater event during the all-star skills competition. He was traded to the OCN Blizzards this past January, at his request. As this is his final year of eligibility to play Junior A hockey, he says he wanted to go as far as he could to make it the best possible experience. He has never been on a winning team like this and is one of the team’s top point getters.

The Blizzards finished third in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League season. At this writing, they are winning the final playoff series for top spot in the league. With the series at 3-1 in their favour, they are only one win away. With that win, they will go on to play a seven-game series against the winners of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. If they win that series, they then go on to the Canadian National Junior A Championships in May.

Weistche says he’s having fun and that his team has a very good chance of going all the way. Like all young hockey players, he has dreams of playing in the NHL like his friend and fellow Cree Jonathan Cheechoo. He doesn’t care where. His favorite team growing up was the Toronto Maple Leafs (who, he predicts, will win the Stanley Cup this year) and his favorite player is Doug Gilmour, (now back playing with the Leafs).

In the Pas, Weistche lives with a host family while he plays, saying they’re a great family who take very good care of him.

Weistche is the eldest son of Ken and Annie Weistche of Waskaganish. He says he misses them and his two younger brothers, and also misses his community. One of the cons of playing so far away from home is the lack of traditional pastimes. He says that he wants to go hunting, that it’s hunting season now, but he’s presently a little busy. There are however many native guys in the league and many Crees, so he doesn’t feel too isolated from his native traditions. He says that the Manitoban Cree speak a different dialect and he sometimes doesn’t understand the words. He has made some good friends though and overall it has been a very good experience.

As for the future, it is still somewhat up in the air at the moment. There have been talks with some NHL scouts and also some east coast team scouts. This summer will be spent at hockey camps hosted by teams who have shown an interest in him. As he says, “I just want to play hockey.”