The hockey sticks are left out, the flags are at half-mast and a tribute appeared Tuesday on the giant screen at the Bell Center in Montreal. Tributes are pouring in this week for Charly Washipabano, an iconic figure in the world of Cree Nation hockey.
Washipabano died Sunday after a health emergency while returning home from a hockey tournament in the Montreal area, his family says. He was 41 years old. His death has left a deep sense of sadness, loss and solidarity in the Cree communities of northern Quebec.
“I didn’t realize how many lives he positively affected,” said Mark Wadden, Washipabano’s cousin and deputy chief of Washipabano’s hometown of Chisasibi, Que.
“There are many good wishes and condolences from the entire Cree nation. We had a candlelight vigil. [Tuesday] in the sand. “I couldn’t find parking.”
In all Cree communities, people leave hockey sticks in front of their front doors, young people gather outside stadiums, raise hockey sticks in the air, and the Cree Nation government has called for flags everywhere. The country is at half-mast until Washipabano’s funeral. There are no details yet on when it will be.
The outpouring of love is really helping the family in their grief, Wadden said.
“It’s bringing people together… It’s bringing the whole Cree nation together. It really helps a lot,” he said.
Washipabano was a former elite hockey player who played for the Forestiers d’Amos AAA midgets in the late 1990s, according to a tribute from Hockey Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
In more recent years, Washipabano played a central role in the development of hockey in the Cree communities of northern Quebec, including helping to develop the Cree Nation Bears hockey program.
He also worked as a coach, coach educator and program coordinator for the Eeyou Istchee Sports and Recreation Association (EISRA), the organization that governs sports and recreation throughout the Cree Nation.
“He was there for the young people,” said Raymond Shanoush, chief of the Eastmain Cree Nation.
Shanoush is also a long-time president of EISRA and a former broadcaster. He first interviewed Washipabano when he was a young hockey hopeful and said he laughed easily, lit up every room he was in and had a way of connecting with everyone.
“He was always present, you know, in every meeting room… in every tournament office, in every locker room. And he was always the kind of person who welcomed everyone, shook everyone’s hand,” he said. Shanoush.
In July 2022, Washipabano was invited as a coach, along with Cree hockey hopeful Israel Mianscum, to join the Montreal Canadiens 2022 development camp.
On Tuesday, the team paid tribute to Washipabano on social media and on the big screen scoreboard during a home game at the Bell Centre.
The idea for the Habs tribute began with Daniel Mark-Stewart, assistant manager at Eastmain. He called the club and then enlisted the help of Abel Bosum, former Cree Big Chief, who approached Serge Savard, former player and general manager of the Canadiens.
The staff at the Bell Center boutique also rushed to get Mark-Stewart a jersey with Washipabano’s name and his number 97 from his days playing with the Chisasibi Hunters.
“[There were] some emotions for me, you know, like because Charly was a friend and I felt proud to be from Eeyou Istchee. I was proud to be a Montreal Canadiens fan. “I was so happy,” Mark-Stewart said, adding that he plans to give the shirt to Washipabano parents.
The Canadiens are saddened to learn of the passing of Charly Washipabano, who dedicated his life to the development of hockey for the Cree Nation. Charly joined us as a guest coach during our 2022 development camp. Our thoughts are with his family, friends and community in this… pic.twitter.com/gWH187Zswx
“It was a very proud night for the Cree Nation… even in these circumstances of losing someone we cared about. It was a good way to celebrate Charly’s life,” Mark-Stewart said.
Washipabano’s son Zane played with the Cree Nation Bears hockey team and is with the Forestiers U15 AAA this season.
One of Washipabano’s last posts on social media was a video of his son scoring a hat-trick in a tournament in Mascouche on Sunday morning.
A special tribute is also being planned for the Big River Cup tournament in Chisasibi that begins this Friday.
The CBC North Cree unit is also planning a special telephone tribute program on Friday’s Eyou Dipajimoon show, hosted by Cheryl Wapachee.