03/26/2014 11:15 EDT | Updated 05/26/2014 05:59 EDT

How Hockey Offered Salvation At Indian Residential Schools (PHOTOS)

Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission into Indian residential schools has travelled the country for five years now, collecting first-hand evidence of the trauma experienced and the legacy left behind.

But TRC Commissioner Willie Littlechild says the commission is also hearing positive stories — about Canada's national game.

"Hockey was the one bright light of a positive experience for many students," says Littlechild.  

Sports, in particular hockey, was part of the curriculum at residential schools across Canada. Students built rinks themselves or skated on lakes. Priests and lay teachers coached the boys, and they often practised daily. Residential school teams took road trips to play other schools, and teams of non-Aboriginal boys too.

"I owe my survival to hockey," says Littlechild, who attended Ermineskin Indian Residential School for 14 years. He was abused physically and sexually there, but went on to play varsity hockey at the University of Alberta, where he studied law. 

"If I didn't graduate, what was the alternative? I could have been found dead on the street in Edmonton on skid row, because of alcohol. So, it's really that strong for me, the influence of hockey in my life."

Littlechild believes highlighting the history of hockey at residential schools is one more step on a path toward reconciliation.

"I'm looking at the hockey community to join us again. We had this rich history together, through residential schools. Let's lift it up, and say, 'What can we do together to make it better, for youth who are in the communities now who don't have a chance to participate?'"

The TRC's national event in Edmonton runs through the weekend. On March 30, the Edmonton Oilers plan to honour residential school survivors, before their game against the New York Rangers.

Special thanks to Anglican Church of Canada Archives, Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for assistance with archival photos.

CBC's Duncan McCue has a special documentary tonight on The National, about the importance of hockey as it was played in residential schools.

Hockey At Residential Schools