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Former hockey pro Dr. Gordon addresses Sault High Class of 2023

Once a professional hockey player, JKL educator Dr. Chris Gordon defeated several obstacles to find his Ojibwe identity, life's purpose — 'For all of you 2.4 GPAs and shop guys... that was me'

Hair flowing past his shoulders, speaking the Native language of his ancestors, Joseph K. Lumsden Bahweting Anishinaabe (JKL) Director of Curriculum, Instruction, State, and Federal Programs Dr. Christopher Gordon spoke to 142 graduates at Sault Area High School Commencement Sunday afternoon to tell his story in a large auditorium for the very first time.

Who better to spark motivation and accelerate drive in the minds of local graduates than an Ojibwe hockey professional, who has successfully crushed every barrier to get to where he is today? 

Meet the real Dr. Gordon...

The Sault Area High School alumnus turned his own blue and white tassel to the left for bigger and better things in 1988. He went on to play in the United States Hockey League (USHL) just two years later.

Gordon captured the attention of University of Michigan (U of M) scouts shortly thereafter, where he played under scholarship from 1990 to 1994. The Wolverines competed in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament all four seasons he was on the team. The Wolverines also played in the NCAA Men's Frozen Four twice.

Upon graduation, Gordon was in professional ice hockey arenas across the US. From the outside looking in, it seemed he was gliding on smooth ice into the future. 

"If you looked at the scrapbook that my mom kept, from kindergarten through my grade school years, it asked, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'" Gordon said. "Each and every one of them only had one list and one title... to be an NHL goalie."

Gordon played in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) for the Huntington Blizzards from 1994 to '95, American Hockey League (AHL) with the Worcester IceCats from '94 to '95, International Hockey League (IHL) for Detroit Vipers from '95 to '96, Colonial Hockey League (CoHL) for Flint Generals from '95 to '96, and Western Professional Hockey League (WPHL) for El Paso Buzzards from '96 to '99.

Twenty-four years after his last game with the Buzzards, Gordon has found himself back home in Sault Ste. Marie, MI, addressing this year's graduates as a doctor. That was definitely not written anywhere in his mother's scrapbook.

Gordon introduced himself in the Anishinaabe language, admitting he had no clue how to do that when he graduated approximately 35 years ago. He did not know who he was.

"It is kind of fitting that the song said, This is Me," Gordon said, referencing The Greatest Showman song, This is Me, as sung by the Sault High choir only minutes prior. "I had some roadblocks and stumbles along the way."

Gordon's mom had him at a rather young age. The year was 1970 and his parents were of the generation that Gordon referred to as "The Hippie Generation." It was a lifestyle they had, reportedly, lived out to the fullest. 

"One of their friends happened to see me at the gas station," Gordon said to backtrack a few years. "I had been working at the school maybe a year, and he hollered over 'It's good to see you. Welcome back.' I said, 'Oh, thanks.' He said, 'I am really proud of you.' I had to take a step back because I didn't understand, fully, what he was talking about. He said, 'No, no, don't get me wrong. I know your family... I know where you came from. Your parents are good people, but I know where you came from.'"

After processing what the man had told him, Gordon came to realize that his life had come full circle.    

"Somehow, I made it through this journey to become an administrator and teacher, when that was the furthest thing from my mind," he said. "If, when I was in that chair, someone had said, 'You are going to do this.' I would have said, 'You are crazy.' I barely got through school. For all of you 2.4 Grade Point Averages (GPA) and shop guys... that was me."

It was Gordon's junior year of high school, and he stood in the Lake Superior State University (LSSU) James Norris Center lobby, watching as many of his friends received offers to play college hockey. Gordon was left out of the mix, but did not understand why? Did he not prove he was quick on his skates and could stop a puck? He decided to ask his coach for assistance.

"I was standing right across from him," said Gordon. "I pleaded my case for him to help me... whatever he did for the other guys... to help me. As I am looking across from you guys, but much closer, he looked right in my face and told me, 'Gordon, you don't have any potential. All you will ever be is a high school goalie.'"

Gordon repeated those words when up on the podium yesterday, pausing for a couple of breaths, careful not to repeat what he said as a teenager in '88.

"I had a choice to make... when an adult... someone I had looked up to... someone revered in the community told me that I was not good enough," Gordon said, thinking back to where, in fact, he had come from in life. "As we used to say, I grew up at the west end of town, on the other side of the tracks... so to speak. There weren't too many people in positions to open doors."

But he remembered his grandmother's wise words: "When one door closes, another door opens."

So, Gordon found an alternative path and left for Marquette.

"Our arch nemesis all of the way through hockey," he said, head bowed. "Those who know hockey, know that was probably one of the most difficult decisions I had ever made because you grow up hating Marquette, terribly."  

But Gordon swallowed his pride and played for the team.

"I continued on and I was lucky," he said about making it to the next level to play for the junior ice hockey team Waterloo Blackhawks from 1988 to 90'. "But then another roadblock hit me in the USHL."

Once again, college scouts were nowhere to be found.

"I was on the All-Star team twice, on the worst team in the league," he said. "But no one was talking to me."

So, he found an alternative path playing for the Omaha Lancers. According to the Lancers website, the Hitchcock Ice Arena team started out with the worst record in the USHL at 0-48-0 in 1986 only to "rise from the ashes of Omaha hockey legend" to "surprise the hockey world in 1990 with the Cinderella story of a lifetime." Against all odds, the Lancers had climbed from last place to number one in four short years.

Within two weeks of signing on, seven schools had contacted him.

"I thought, there was something wrong," Gordon said about his disbelief at the time. "Someone had paid them off or something."

That was when he spoke to a Ferris State University recruiter, who quickly apologized to him.

"He said, 'Chris, for a year and a half no one thought you wanted to go to college," Gordon recalled the conversation as if it were yesterday. "We talked to your coach and he just said, 'No, he just doesn't have any plans to do that.'"

It was a hockey era when scouts were required to talk to coaches to get to the players.

"Another hurdle, another path, another change," Gordon said. "Somehow, I found myself at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I barely even knew what that school was because not many of us graduated high school. College certainly wasn't in any of our vocabularies, growing up."

Gordon admitted he was not there for academics. He was there because he could, in fact, "stop a puck."

"I thought, 'Man if I had listened to that coach who told me I had no potential, where would I be?'" Gordon asked.

He nearly dropped out of college after being placed on academic probation.

"Tutors and lots of support kept me through," he said, proudly.

Then, another hurdle. It was his senior year playing for U of M, and the coach had requested that he cut his hair. This would have meant cutting off his ancestry and culture. 

"That coach had tremendous connections in the NHL as a player, Hall of Famer (US and CA), multiple Stanley Cups," said Gordon. "My dream was to play in the NHL, and this guy was telling me I was off of the team because I wouldn't cut my hair."

He looked directly at the crowd and repeated the lyrics to The Greatest Showman song once again... This is Me.

Gordon said he went directly to the Associate Dean of Students with his concerns. The dean was more than willing to fight the coach's decision. The coach had allowed Gordon to stay on the team.

"But I knew what would happen behind the scenes," he added. "I would be on the team, but I knew what would happen... I couldn't replace who I was. I had finally figured out who I was going to be as a person, more than anything... not career, but as a person."

The coach did not let up. The president of the university actually had to get involved so that Gordon could play as his Indigenous self.

"I couldn't replace who I was anymore," he said, reflecting back on the high school coach who once told him, 'You have no potential.' A person doesn't have the right to say that, so that was coming back full circle for me. I completed my senior year. That coach never said another word to me for the rest of the year. Somehow, I had graduated from the University of Michigan. That is still hard to say."

Gordon played hockey professionally for five years until 1999, simultaneously earning his teaching certificate in science and physical education.   

"When they talk about your paths, goals, and what you have ahead of you, don't worry," he said. "Just because you get a degree in college, it does not mean that is exactly what you are going to do."

Gordon assumed he would either become a physical therapist or athletic trainer when he left the U of M ice arena.

"The idea of becoming a teacher was really planted after a hockey game in Quad Cities," he said with a small chuckle, referencing the 1977 comedy, Slap Shot, in which a hockey team uses violence to boost its fan base. "We had one of those games in Quad City. My roommate, he didn't look so good... he really didn't look so good. He was a college guy, too. We were pretty banged up, beat up, and he looked like garbage. He thought, 'Why are we playing down here.'"

They brainstormed, thinking of other things they could do with their lives. However, both had been shamelessly spoiled by a lifestyle of working out whenever they wanted and enjoying the summers off.

"Is there any profession that has summers off?" Gordon asked.

He and his roommate pondered for a minute before concluding that teachers get summers off. He went on to play for three more seasons. Burning deep within his heart was the desire to teach the Anishinaabe language and culture in Sault Ste. Marie, MI. He continued his education to study curriculum and instruction, having earned a master's from LSSU in 2006 and a doctorate from Capella University in 2009.

"Fast-forward to this path of JKL Bahweting Anishnabe school," Gordon said. "I had no idea that was the path I would ever end up on. All of those doors that were closed always opened another door. Once I realized my potential, every single path was opened."

Gordon left the Sault Area High School Graduating Class of 2023 with this: "If just one of you out there takes this with you know that you have your own path, no matter what it is; no matter what roadblock you have in front of you; and no matter who tells you don't have potential. If only one of you uses this in the future, what I have come here to share was meant to be."

Upcoming LSSU electrical engineering student Tristian Forgrave reflected on Dr. Gordon's speech.

"It was really inspirational," he said. "Keep going and don't give up on yourself."


Sara Eisinger

About the Author: Sara Eisinger

An award-winning journalist, Sara is proud to be a new resident of Sault Ste Marie, Michigan.
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