Calling NHL games in Cree is more than a dream come true for broadcaster Clarence Iron — it’s also a way to help preserve his language.
The 60-year-old broadcaster from Canoe Lake Cree Nation in northern Saskatchewan is set bring the sport he loves to his community in a whole new way next month with the debut of “Hockey Night in Canada in Cree.”
“It means a lot. We’re losing our languages across Canada,” said Iron, who’ll do play-by-play in Plains Cree for the six national NHL broadcasts. “We’re trying to save the Cree language. And it’ll help. Even to call a hockey game in Cree, it’s a big thing.”
Sportsnet and APTN have teamed up for the broadcasts, which will be hosted by Earl Wood and feature analysts John Chabot and Jason Chamakese.
Iron grew up listening to “Hockey Night in Canada” on the radio and idolizing broadcasters Foster Hewitt, Bob Cole and Danny Gallivan.
“I always dreamt to be involved somehow in Hockey Night in Canada. I had dreams, a vision, when I was younger that maybe one day. But I never thought I would be calling play-by-play in Cree. I thought maybe the English version,” he said with a laugh.
As a kid, Iron loved the Maple Leafs and the Oilers. He occasionally got a chance to go to Edmonton and watch hockey greats like Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky play.
“I had the opportunity to see some big players back then,” he said.
He went to residential school, where he hung on to his Cree language by talking to himself and speaking to his classmates in secret.
Residential school is also where Iron started practising his play-by-play at the outdoor rink.
“If I wasn’t’ playing, I’d be standing outside the arena where there was lots of snow and I’d be standing pretty much in the centre ice area and I’d be calling play-by-play,” he said. “Sometimes they could hear me and they used to tell me to shut up because I was a little too loud.”
In the mid-1990s, he was invited to call some Indigenous hockey tournaments in English, and would do a few minutes in Cree, too. He went on to call games in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, as well as some boxing and high school football games.
Iron struggled, though, battling alcoholism and drug addiction, and spent time living on the streets in various cities across Canada.
After working on his recovery, he got a job as a broadcaster at CFNK radio in Pinehouse, Sask., about 350 kilometres north of Prince Albert. His show, where he talks about local, regional and national news, is livestreamed online, attracting listeners from across the country and as far away as Russia.
Iron’s love for hockey never faded and in March 2019, he made history, doing play-by-play for the first-ever Cree broadcast of an NHL game.
He’s since called several games for “Rogers Hometown Hockey in Cree.”
“When we first started, we had a real good feedback,” Iron said. “People really liked what I was doing, calling in Cree, especially some of the elders.”
Taking part in the broadcasts hasn’t been easy, though.
In order to get to the studio in Winnipeg, Iron has to get a ride for the two-and-a-half hour drive to La Ronge, Sask. From there, he flies to Saskatoon, then on to Calgary, then Winnipeg. If he’s lucky, he’ll get a direct flight from Saskatoon to Winnipeg, he said.
There’s a lot of work that goes into calling games, too. Iron has already begun studying the Winnipeg Jets and Ottawa Senators rosters in preparation for calling a game between the two sides on Jan. 15.
“It takes a little while. You’ve got to remember the names and the numbers. It’s not easy. You’ve got to do a little homework,” he said.
“I’ve been learning and I’ve been practising even some of the Cree terms like centre ice, defensive faceoff, hat trick, penalty, penalty box, short handed, wrist shot. You have to learn all those words. We had them before, it’s just to put them into a game. You have to think fast.”
“Hockey Night in Canada in Cree” will air on Jan. 29 (Edmonton at Montreal), March 5 (Vancouver at Toronto), March 26 (Edmonton at Calgary), April 9 (Montreal at Toronto) and April 23 (Toronto at Florida).
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2021.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press