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U.S. forward Abby Roque is a first-time Olympian — and a pioneer for Indigenous people

Abby Roque, right, hugs teammate Grace Zumwinkle before Tuesday's practice session. (Petr David Josek/AP)
5 min

BEIJING — The players skated around Tuesday afternoon at Wukesong Sports Center without their helmets and — briefly, mercifully — without their masks, stopping and smiling for the camera that would capture the official team portrait of the 2022 U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team, not to mention their own camera phones that were tucked under pads on their hips or their shoulders. After the large group photo came the subsets: first-time Olympians in one shot, the goalies in another; University of Minnesota players followed by those from the University of Wisconsin — rivals in everyday life, teammates here.

Abby Roque fit in so many permutations of these groups — first-timers and Badgers among them — which makes sense. “She’s somebody that everybody wants to be around,” Coach Joel Johnson said.

But she’s also in a group of one at these Olympics, and in history: the first Native American to play for the women’s hockey team, one of no more than a handful of Indigenous people to compete at any Winter Games for Team USA.

“It’s an honor, and it’s amazing to be the first,” Roque said Tuesday after practice. “But it’s also a little sad.”

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The signs around this colossal city blare the slogan for these Games again and again: “Together for a shared future.” In an Olympics that is being diplomatically boycotted by a slew of nations — the United States included — because of China’s history of human rights abuses and censorship, it seems almost a laughable notion.

But maybe, in the athletes themselves, there are examples of what that slogan should represent, of what the Olympics should be about. Abby Roque is here to play hockey, to be a part of a marquee U.S. women’s team that hopes to back up its 2018 gold medal with another. But she’s also here to represent people who haven’t traditionally been represented at the Winter Games at all.

Her responsibility for her team — one that has transitioned past some of its longtime heroes — is to play a smart and tough brand of hockey. But her responsibility at these Games is more significant: to help Indigenous kids realize that their lives have no boundaries.

“It’s something I do hold responsible to try to make it known and try to make it that other Indigenous girls and boys can play,” she said. “I do feel responsible for that. I do think it’s super-important.”

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Roque characterizes her home, Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., as “a small town with lots of love.

“Everybody really cares about everybody,” Roque said. “Everybody also knows everything about everyone.”

But her identity comes not just from that Upper Peninsula hamlet nestled against the Canadian border. It comes from her membership in the Wahnapitae First Nation, a Canada-based tribe with fewer than 600 members, mostly across south-central Ontario and northern Michigan. Her uncle Larry, her dad’s brother, was just elected as chief for a second time.

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The tribe is a fundamental part of who Roque is. Its people have supported her career as she developed from a coach’s kid — her father, Jim, was the head coach at Lake Superior State from 2004 to 2015 and is now a scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs — into a national team player and potential star. Until she matriculated at Wisconsin, she didn’t realize that her teammates might never have shared a meal with an Indigenous person.

“I didn’t perceive myself to be a little bit different than my peers because I always grew up through high school and earlier playing with other Indigenous players,” she said. “And when I got to college, I knew I was going to be probably one of few in the NCAA but not as little as I was.

“And then you just realize how little people have played with any Indigenous players growing up. A lot of people don’t even know Indigenous people. I think that was eye-opening for me, just how little Indigenous people are in the sport of hockey and how that should change.”

Roque is in position to change that — both with her play and her willingness to embrace her pioneering position.

When the puck drops Thursday for the U.S. women’s opener against Finland — a game that takes place a day before the Opening Ceremonies — Abby Roque will be on the ice not as some sort of groundbreaker but as a playmaking forward who, even in her first Olympics, is a central part of what the Americans do.

“She brings some of that different, unique energy that she’s able to sort of light up a room,” said American teammate Hilary Knight, a four-time Olympian. “Very charismatic individual.”

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“She’s got some special gifts on the ice; there’s no question about that,” said Johnson, who began coaching Roque in USA Hockey’s national program when she was 16. “She controls the play. She’s great defensively. She’s really creative and can handle the puck offensively and win faceoffs. She’s very versatile in playing with a bunch of different people. But off the ice is what makes her special.”

Part of that is her acceptance — even her embracing — of her status as a role model. The Winter Olympics in general, or hockey specifically, are for White people? Think again.

“That just adds to the experience for her,” Johnson said. “I know … she has a tremendous amount of pride because she wants to advocate for Indigenous people of any nationality or any background.”

Tuesday afternoon, in those carefree, maskless moments before a serious practice to prepare for Thursday’s opener against Finland, Roque’s role was to document her journey here, smiling and teasing. There is the following backdrop, though, and it’s one that fits what the Olympics should be: “This really should be a sport for everyone,” she said, and she beamed.

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