Wacey Rabbit used to facing challenges
Lunch rush at the only McDonald’s in Kushiro, he heads to the back of a long line. People are staring. Who can blame them? Not only is Wacey Rabbit the lone foreigner on the premises, he happens to be sporting hockey equipment, including helmet and visor.
He is also wearing a dimple-busting grin. (The moment, captured by the Nippon Paper Cranes’ photo-snapping translator, is featured on Rabbit’s Twitter account.) Minutes away is the punch line — his super-sized order. Two dozen strawberry and vanilla milkshakes.
This, beverages for the boys, is the price of losing a shootout at practice. No worries. Rabbit, back in Calgary after his latest adventure, the 201516 campaign in Asia League Ice Hockey, relishes the re-telling. “I enjoyed it. It was funny.” Not easily rattled is this guy, fortified by the survival of countless encounters, awkward and otherwise.
The season started in typical fashion, trying to feel at home in a room full of strangers. It’s a drill that never changes. From the American Hockey League to the East Coast league, from Austria to Croatia, from Norway to Japan.
“Just walking into a new challenge,” the outgoing 29-yearold says. “But dressing rooms are universal. All the guys are accepting. If you’re a good guy, if you work hard, they’re going to accept you.” So faze Rabbit? Not likely. “I’ve been out of my comfort zone since I was 10,” he says matter-of-factly over a cup of coffee the other day. “Nothing is new to me.” When he was a youngster, his family left the Blood Reserve, southwest of Lethbridge, to relocate in Airdrie. His folks, Marlene and Marvin, wanted their boy exposed to high-level hockey.
Which meant adjusting to more than pace.
“For me, it was walking into a dressing room and being a different skin colour than your teammates,” Rabbit says. “I was the only native kid a lot of the time.”
Nevertheless, he thrived.
Winning the provincial bantam title with the powerhouse Airdrie Xtreme. Drafted by the WHL Saskatoon Blades.
All the while, he never abandoned his roots. The day the Boston Bruins selected him, he’d been working at the Tsuu T’ina Nation powwow. A couple of years later, he brought to his reserve the Memorial Cup, captured while he was with the Vancouver Giants. Priorities have not changed. This summer, Rabbit will serve as an instructor for the First Nation Athletics’ hockey school at Father David Bauer Arena. His hard-won wisdom goes beyond stickhandling.
For starters, coping with the jarring reality of life away from the reserve.
“Emotionally, physically, it’s a different world,” Rabbit says. “It’s really hard. It’s like you’re going into a different country. They’ve never experienced that life away.”
The transition, he adds, is worth it.
“Look at guys like Carey Price, Jordan Nolan, Jordin Tootoo, now Brigette Lacquette (on the national women’s team). It’s amazing. Sport can do a lot of good things for you — not only on the ice.”
There can be backlash, accusations that departing means distancing. This is misguided, according to Rabbit.
“Sometimes that is the perception. ‘They’re leaving. They’re turning their back.’ But I tell every kid, ‘Home will always be there.’ I go home and it’s like I never left. They welcome you with open arms. They’re proud of you.”
That point was hammered home one night during his rookie season with the Blades.
After his first appearance in Lethbridge against the Hurricanes, he strolled out of the rink to discover 500 friends and relatives from his reserve, all waiting for him.
“An eye-opener,” he says. “My parents were like, ‘ You need to be a good person. Not only on the ice, but you need to take care of yourself off the ice. You have no choice about being a role model, you’re either a good one or a bad one.’ ”
Embracing the responsibility, he served as the keynote speaker at Kainai High School’s graduation the year he was in Grade 12 in Calgary.
In 2006, he earned Canadian Hockey League humanitarian-ofthe-year honours.
Asked if he ever worried about letting down his community, he shakes his head.
“Whatever I’m doing in my life is my life,” Rabbit says. “If people want to know me, they can come ask me. If I do something wrong, I’m human. People know who I am.”
That unique handle certainly helps.
Named after bull rider Wacey Cathey, Rabbit doesn’t shy away from the (surely tired) topic.
“If I had a name like Kevin or John. …” he says, chuckling. “I’m a colourful person. That’s what my grandma always said, ‘ You match your name.’ It gets my name out there.”
Even if fans aren’t always aware of his whereabouts.
Rabbit hasn’t skated in North America since 2011-12.
“Hockey, for me, is a life experience,” says Rabbit, who this past winter, visited the Great Wall of China and the Korean demilitarized zone. “I get to see things that other people would have to pay to see. This game’s done a lot of things for me.
“Once I’m done, I’ll be comfortable. If I want to go to school, I don’t have to be the starving student.” Rabbit turns 30 in November. He plans to buy a house next year.
With a handful of productive seasons to come, the undersized centre is remarkably unscathed. Two concussions, ankle surgery, hand surgery. Even if he never did get his NHL notch.
But advice he doles out, he’s lived.
“Go chase your dream,” Rabbit says. “Look at the NHL guys, obviously that was the dream. I wasn’t three years old saying, ‘I can’t wait to go to Europe when I’m older.’ But I got the opportunity that a lot of kids from my reserve didn’t.
“I can give inspiration to the younger kids, the younger generation. You know what? If I can do it.’’
I tell every kid, ‘Home will always be there.’ I go home and it’s like I never left. They welcome you with open arms.