Vern Cooper of Waswanipi is playing for the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League after being taken in the first round (13th overall) of last year’s Ontario Hockey League player draft. Team management and scouting had said that if they had the first pick, they still would have selected Vern as he was their only choice.

Having been greatly involved in Cree Hockey for the past 15 years and Chairman of the National Aboriginal Hockey Program for the past 10, I have seen many talented Aboriginal youth athletes, both male and female. Vern Cooper is one of the top prospects across the country and must be considered a role model and example for young people with dreams (following fellow Aboriginal stars Jonathan Cheechoo and Jordan Tootoo) as he continues his goal of one day playing in the NHL.

I surprised Vern over the Christmas holidays, showing up at his game in Plymouth, Michigan, December 28. It must be noted that during this game Vern was still a 15-year-old rookie (he turned 16 two days later, on December 30), yet watching him play that game you would think he was an OHL veteran of 18 or 19.

Each time he took to the ice he had a focus in his eyes; a determination to make things happen whether he had the puck or not. Every shift he skated as if it would be his last, giving 150 per cent all the time with no letup. As I watched him turn a defenceman inside out and create a great scoring chance (see photo upper right), I couldn’t help but stop and smile as I listened to the crowd cheering for their future hero.

Vern isn’t eligible for the NHL draft until 2009, after his third complete season in the OHL, so he has a lot to look forward to over the next few seasons. I spoke with some team executives during the game and they remarked on the considerable investment they are committed to making with Vern.

His parents, Allan and Clara Cooper, were in attendance at the game and I offered congratulations to them as parents for what they have done for their child. Clara is a true and proud “Hockey Mom” and should receive an award as well for sacrificing herself to make sure that Vern has every opportunity to live his dream.

I spent time with Vern after the game, asking about the changes and adapting to new lifestyle, education and, of course, hockey. He was ever the youth with passion, smiling and joking around and reminding me he is still just a kid. Yet the promise and possibilities for this youth bring tears to my eyes as I think of past youth who never got this far or those that have left us in their prime before their time to shine.

The Grand Council, the Cree Chiefs, the Cree School Board and Cree Health Board should all reflect on this and when there is a talented youth who makes a request for assistance be it financial or other – whether it is for hockey, music, education or any other area – do not be quick to turn to policies but rather consider the remarkable achievement this young person has made.