Hockey sticks are being left outside, flags are at half mast and a tribute flashed Tuesday on the jumbo screen at the Bell Centre in Montreal. The tributes are pouring in this week for Charly Washipabano, an iconic figure in the Cree Nation hockey world.
Washipabano died Sunday after a health emergency driving home from a hockey tournament in the Montreal area, his family says. He was 41. His death has left a profound sense of sadness, loss and solidarity across Cree communities in northern Quebec.
“I did not realize how many lives he affected in a positive way,” said Mark Wadden, Washipabano’s cousin and deputy chief of Washipabano’s hometown Chisasibi, Que.
“There’s a lot of well wishes and condolences pouring in from the whole Cree Nation. We had a candlelight vigil [Tuesday] at the arena. I couldn’t find parking.”
Across Cree communities, people are leaving hockey sticks outside their front doors, youth are gathering outside arenas, raising hockey sticks in the air and the Cree Nation Government has asked that flags across the nation be at half mast until Washipabano’s funeral. There aren’t yet details on when that will be.
The outpouring of love is really helping the family in their grief, said Wadden.
“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, playing for midget AAA for Forestiers d’Amos in the late 1990s, according to a tribute by Hockey Abitibi-Témiscamingue.
In more recent years, Washipabano played a central role in the development of hockey across Cree communities in northern Quebec, including helping to develop the Cree Nation Bears hockey program.
He also worked as a coach, a trainer of coaches, and as program co-ordinator 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 youth,” said Raymond Shanoush, chief of the Cree Nation of Eastmain.
Shanoush is also a longtime president of the EISRA and a former broadcaster. He first interviewed Washipabano as a young hockey hopeful and said he had an easy laugh, lit up every room he was in and had a way of connecting with everyone.
“He was always present, you know, in every boardroom … in every tournament office, every dressing room. And he was always the type of guy that welcomed everybody, shook hands with everybody,” 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 jumbo screen scoreboard during a home game at the Bell Centre.
The idea for the Habs tribute started with Daniel Mark-Stewart, deputy chief of Eastmain. He called the club and then enlisted the help of Abel Bosum, former Cree Grand Chief, who reached out to Serge Savard, former Canadiens player and general manager.
The staff at the Bell Centre boutique also put a rush 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 felt proud to be a Montreal Canadiens fan. I was overjoyed,” said Mark-Stewart, adding he plans to give the jersey to Washipabano’s parents.
The Canadiens are saddened to learn of the passing of Charly Washipabano, who dedicated his life to hockey development 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 at this… <a href=”https://t.co/gWH187Zswx”>pic.twitter.com/gWH187Zswx</a>
“It was a very proud night for the Cree Nation … even under these circumstances of losing someone that we cared about. It was a nice way to celebrate Charly’s life,” said Mark-Stewart.
Washipabano’s son Zane played with the Cree Nation Bears hockey team and this season is with the Forestiers U15 AAA.
One of Washipabano’s last posts to social media was a video of his son scoring a hat-trick in a tournament in Mascouche Sunday morning.
A special tribute is also being planned for the Big River Cup tournament in Chisasibi that starts this Friday.
The CBC North Cree unit is also planning a special tribute phone-in show on Friday’s Eyou Dipajimoon, hosted by Cheryl Wapachee.