Jefferson Hagen, MacEwan Athletics
EDMONTON – The memories and stories pouring in about Nakehko Lamothe in the days following his tragic passing after a hockey game in Calgary last Friday speak to the character of a man whose desire to mentor and help others will serve as an inspiration for his MacEwan Griffins teammates.
How he spearheaded an initiative to invite Indigenous youth from Calling Lake, Alta., to MacEwan University so they could experience a day-in-the-life of a Griffins student-athlete.
How he returned to Calling Lake every summer to help run a hockey program for kids, mentoring them in nutrition, fitness and on-ice work, in an attempt to further their dream of one day playing university hockey.
How he jumped at the chance to serve as a Griffins' summer hockey camp instructor to also enrich the lives of local minor hockey players, including serving as a role model for my own son.
How his infectious laugh and joy in being able to play hockey rubbed off on all around him.
As the days turn into weeks and months in the aftermath of the toughest month the MacEwan Griffins hockey team has experienced, Lamothe will never be far from their thoughts.
"It's not just our team, our coaches, our school, there's so much people don't realize he was doing for the community," said Griffins captain Cam Gotaas. "After the tragic event, everything we've learned he was doing, has done, it's truly amazing. His character is unmatched."
Gotaas noted how important it will be for he and his teammates to carry on Lamothe's legacy moving forward.
"I wasn't part of that last year," he said of the initiative to bring youth in from Calling Lake last February, "but I can certainly guarantee that's something we'll be continuing on in his legacy.
"He was such a great person and was so genuine. It's going to be hard without him. He was such a great presence in the room. The only thing we can do now is try to carry his legacy forward."
Nakehko Lamothe lines up for a faceoff during a game earlier this season (Matthew Jacula photo).
In his too-short 23 years on earth, Lamothe set an example for his teammates at practice by being the first guy on and last guy off the ice. His work in the gym was legendary. Academically, his marks in MacEwan's Science program were among the best on the team. And his aforementioned community work helped so many.
"There are two words that I would use to describe Nakehko," said Griffins men's hockey head coach Michael Ringrose. "The first one would be dedicated.
"I think about him as a student and how dedicated and passionate he was about his studies. That's reflected in the marks that he got.
"I think about the dedication he had on the ice. He was frequently the first one off, last one off. He was the type of guy who was always working at his game. He certainly wasn't the most talented guy on our team, but he might have been the hardest working.
"I think about his dedication to his fitness. He was easily the most fit of anyone on our team. Anytime we did any kind of fitness testing, he was at the top.
"I think about dedication to his teammates. He cared about everyone in the room. He cared about his teammates immensely and they were family to him. That was very obvious.
"I think about his dedication in the community to making a difference – the different initiatives that he led and he put together to support the community at large, but specifically indigenous youth and how much that mattered to him. Dedication is certainly a word you can use to sum up Nakehko.
"The second word that I would use is selfless," he continued. "He was a selfless person. He was always giving. He was always willing to do something for his teammates, for the team, for the people in his community, for the university.
"He was selfless, which is a difficult thing to be when you're a 23-year-old. It mattered so much to him that other people were getting what they wanted. He would work tirelessly and do as much as he could to make sure he was helping as much as he could."
In an interview for the Griffins' website that Lamothe gave last February, his passion to be a role model for Indigenous youth was evident.
"For me, that's what really drives me," he said. "When I work out in the summer or stay out on the ice after (practice) shooting pucks, I'm trying to make myself the best player I can be for them, so they can see (what it takes).
"The kids from my home community, the further I go, they think they can do that, too. That really drives me."
His help to the greater hockey community at large was also noteworthy. Lamothe, who grew up a product of Vimy Ridge Academy and the Edmonton Southside Athletic Club AAA programs, gave back to kids learning the craft just like he once was by serving as an instructor during MacEwan's summer hockey camps.
"He connected very well with the kids and you could tell he was very passionate about helping the kids out," said Griffins assistant coach Zack Dailey, who organizes the camps. "When I e-mailed about the summer camps, he was one of the first people to jump right on it and was excited about it. The kids really like him and they enjoyed being with him."
On the ice, Lamothe was a prototypical power forward, using his 6-3, 210-pound frame to wreak havoc on the opposition's plans. But he could skate with them all anyway, honing his variety of skills in three different junior leagues, ending that phase of his career with the La Ronge Ice Wolves in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in 2016.
As he got acclimated to the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference in his rookie season in 2016-17, he was in and out of the lineup, producing four goals and eight points in 13 games. Lamothe sat and watched during MacEwan's run through the playoffs and was still a spectator in the first two games of the finals against NAIT.
But after MacEwan lost Game 2 at home, then-head coach Bram Stephen made some lineup changes. Lamothe was in for the series-deciding contest.
He didn't disappoint, using his strong physical play to help wear down the Ooks, which would become a major factor as the Griffins rallied late against a fatigued NAIT team and won in overtime to claim their first ACAC Championship in 13 years.
A year later, Lamothe and the Griffins did it again, beating NAIT last March for their second in a row as his physical play again proved crucial.
"I think about the role that he played on a line in our championship series against NAIT," said Ringrose. "He played on a line with Dallas Smith and Taylor Mulder and they were unbelievable. The energy that they brought – they were hard to play against. They competed relentlessly. They were the engine that drove our energy.
"It didn't matter to him," continued Ringrose. "He killed penalties for us. He played that role and was able to take faceoffs on the left side of the ice and consistently win those."
Nakehko Lamothe gets his turn with the trophy after the Griffins won the 2017-18 ACAC Championship in NAIT Arena last March (Len Joudrey photo).
Not needing any fanfare, Lamothe just went out and did what he needed to do for the team, often in a grinding, aggravating role that made him tough to play against. He played 23 games in the 2017-18 season, scoring seven times and adding four assists. Three of them were game-winners, tied for tops on the Griffins.
Injuries kept him out of the lineup for the early part of the 2018-19 season, but Lamothe had a goal and five points in 11 games before his passing.
"The one thing that stands out in my mind about him is he was willing to do whatever it takes," said Ringrose. "He was willing to do whatever it took to win. Whatever was asked of him. Whatever his teammates needed of him, he was willing to do. Whether that was going out and playing a physical role, he was willing to do that.
"He didn't ask for praise, he didn't ask for credit. He just went about his business and did whatever the team needed."
Griffins assistant captain Nolan Yaremchuk remembers Lamothe's final shift in last Friday's game against the SAIT Trojans, which would end in a 6-3 loss for the Griffins. Lamothe had an assist and 14 penalty minutes before preparing to go on the ice for a shift late in the game.
"We were down by two goals and they got an empty-netter, so it was just a setting-the-tone type shift," said Yaremchuk, whose team was set to play the Trojans again on Saturday night in Edmonton – a game that was postponed following the tragedy.
"He says to me before, 'Yammer, let's just go out there and have some fun, man. Let's kick (their butts) and have some fun.'
"I think it just really speaks to who he was and how he lived his life. I think he had fun. He was salt of the earth, he really was."
It goes without saying that the rest of the season will be difficult for the MacEwan Griffins players. Their games this weekend against Red Deer College have been postponed, but they'll be back on the ice Feb. 8 vs. Concordia University (7 p.m., Downtown Community Arena).
It will never be business as usual, but they will pick up and resume their quest for a third-straight ACAC Championship. Winning it for Lamothe will be their unifying goal.
"I certainly think that if you reflect on the type of person and the type of player that Nakehko was, there is no doubt that he would want us to carry on and push forward and compete for another championship," said Ringrose. "That is, without a doubt in my mind, what he would have wanted us to do in this situation.
"If we can take anything from this experience, if we can show up every day and compete like he did on the ice and work like he did on the ice, I believe that we would be doing what he would want. Those are things that we can control. We can control our compete and we can control our work ethic. Those are the things that defined him as a player.
"If we can draw anything from this experience it's that he would want us to continue and as much as possible emulate those traits that defined him."
That includes off the ice. Yaremchuk yearns to learn more about Lamothe's heritage – a member of the Liidli First Nations in Fort Simpson, NWT.
"He taught us so much about Indigenous culture, but the fact we don't know a lot is something that we're all going to strive to learn more about because of him now," he said. "I'm interested in everything because Nakehko.
"I think when you come to MacEwan, you're going to learn about Nakehko and his culture. It will be with MacEwan University and especially the hockey team for a long time."