Native Olympic hero: Boucha book details highs, lows of Ojibwe NHL, Olympic star
By Jack Hittinger / Bemidji Pioneer
BEMIDJI — Henry Boucha stands on the ice, starting off at another player somewhere off-camera. His trademark headband matches the color of the dark red Detroit Red Wings jersey and his unkempt moustache/sideburns combination ooze cool.
This photograph — from a 1970s era NHL magazine — was one of many Boucha had displayed Wednesday during his book signing at Cool Threads in downtown Bemidji.
Boucha was in town to promote his new autobiography, “Henry Boucha, Ojibwa: Native American Olympian.”
If the idea is to inspire people to overcome adversity and achieve their goals, showing them a photo of Boucha during his NHL or Olympic heydey should do the trick.
His book contains his life’s highs — going to the Olympics with Team USA in 1972 — and lows — his descent into drugs, alcoholism and depression following the horrific eye injury that cut his career short in 1975.
Bocha, 62, is active in Indian education and said he intended to use the book as a teaching tool. Although he is an American citizen — born in Warroad — he is a member of the Northwest Angle No. 37 Ojibwe band out of Ontario and speaks to Natives in both the U.S. and Canada.
Boucha said the inspiration for the book came when he was in Albuquerque, N.M., in 1992 at the Gathering of Nations. He and 10 other Native Americans — including Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe — were being honored as Native American Olympians.
He was surprised there were only 10 (he now knows of 18 Natives who competed for both the U.S. and Canada) and wanted to highlight their stories.
“We’re trying to get Indian families proud of who they are,” he said. “We want to use it as a teaching tool. I’m interested in issues facing reservations now: suicide prevention, obesity, better lifestyles, making better choices and things like that. You want to do that.
“Certainly when I go out and give speeches I talk about everything that I went through, all my craziness.. I want kids to get away from that.”
Boucha has been making the circuit around Minnesota to promote his book and said Bemidji was a natural fit, given the strong hockey culture associated with the town as well as the native population in the area.
Boucha also has various connections to Bemidji hockey, including on the 1972 Olympic team.
He was teammates with former Bemidji State standouts Jim McElmury and Charlie Brown in Sapporo, Japan, and before winning the silver medal, the team had its fall training camp in Bemidji. He credits his time in Bemidji as a big reason why the team won a medal.
“That was really special,” he said. “That was the first time we’d really done any dry-land training. We learned that from the Russians and it really paid off for us.”
Boucha is also a distant cousin of former Bemidji State and Bemidji High star Gary Sargent.
The two saw their careers overlap briefly in the NHL and played against one another when Boucha was skating for the Kansas City Scouts and Sargent for the Los Angeles Kings.
“It was a proud moment to look down the ice and see Sarge down there wearing his jersey,” he said. “There weren’t many natives in the league at the time. There weren’t even many Americans around. Being Native American and a U.S. citizen, I took a lot of heat.”
After graduating from Warroad in 1969 Boucha played a season for the Winnipeg Jets of the Western Canada Junior Hockey League before joining the national team.
The Red Wings drafted him in 1971 and he played two full seasons with the Wings before being traded to the Minnesota North Stars in 1974.
An eye injury during a 1975 game against the Boston Bruins left him with cracked bones and blurred vision. He attempted a comeback but retired in 1977, at the age of 26.
After suffering his injury, Boucha battled depression before returning to his Ojibwe roots and spirituality — roots he said he never really had growing up in Warroad.
That, combined with being recognized as a Native American pioneer, has made him even more dedicated to being a role model for Native American youths.
“Once you find your spirituality after you go through all the problems, all the trials and tribulations growing up, people are willing to help more,” he said of getting his book and his message out. “I think this book is great for kids. It’s a great family reading tool. It has a lot of lessons, I think. Like, hey, have a dream, choose your own setting. Stay away from the drugs and alcohol.”
Boucha said he’s also dedicated to growing the game of hockey for Native Americans and other minorities, and is encouraged by the multicultural game these days.
“It’s wonderful to see the diversity now in the National Hockey League and other leagues,” he said. “Inner city kids, Hispanics, blacks, Indians. It’s worldwide.”