In Ojibwe tribal language Anishinaabemowin there is no word for goodbye. It is a fitting way to think about Henry Boucha—an Olympic silver medalist, Minnesota hockey legend, NHLer, Ojibwe Tribe member and Native American advocate who passed away this fall. Boucha, 72, whose Ojibwe name Ogichidaa-Makwa Dodem means “Warrior,” completed the Ojibwe’s “Four Hills of Life” on Sept. 18. The “Four Hills of Life” encapsulate lessons about life, challenges faced, growth and change throughout its different stages—childhood (spring), adolescence (summer), adulthood (fall), and old age (winter).
The “four hills” of the proud Ojibwe Tribe member and U.S. Hockey Hall of Famer’s life centered around two things—his Native American heritage and hockey. The “fall” and “winter” seasons revolved around advocating Native American heritage, rights and providing a much-needed voice, and his “spring” and “summer” seasons were filled with the sport of ice hockey.
Boucha was a “can’t miss” prospect from the time he hit the ice as a youngster. He became a Minnesota hockey legend as a teenager in the 1969 Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament when his warrior skill and spirit helped him lead his Warroad High School team to the title game before losing to Edina, 5-4, in overtime.
Following high school, with multiple offers to play Division I college hockey, including at the fabled University of Minnesota, Boucha decided to play junior hockey in Canada. Despite an offer to play for the Montreal Jr. Canadiens, Boucha decided to stay closer to the “Gopher State” and play in Winnipeg. It was during this time that Boucha caught the eye of Murray Williamson, the 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey head coach.
Williamson recruited Boucha to try out for the 1970 U.S. Men’s National Team. He jumped at the chance and was shortly notified he made the team. There was no drama, no build-up or question. The kid was that good.
Following playing for Team USA in the World “B” Championship, Boucha was presented with another “can’t miss” scenario while the country was amid the Vietnam War. With a draft number of 32, he was inevitably going to be drafted into the United States Army. At the advice of Williamson, he enlisted as a volunteer. He reported to Fort Knox, Kentucky, served some time in Germany, and was eventually assigned “temporary duty” under Williamson while playing internationally for the USA hockey team from 1970-72.
Boucha fulfilled a childhood dream in 1972 when he became a member of the U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey team, and he was instrumental in leading Team USA to a silver medal at the Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan.
“Everybody loved Henry,” Williamson said. “He was so talented. Guys loved to play with him. His legend was born during his high school years and never stopped. He was a catalyst for our success in Sapporo. We would not have won the silver medal without him. In addition to being one of the greatest players in U.S. hockey history, his service and advocacy for his Native American heritage and people are truly an even greater legacy than what he ever did on the ice.”
Tim Sheehy, a co-captain for the ’72 squad, agreed.
“Henry was a player with special talent,” Sheehy said. “His end-to-end rushes at forward and defense captivated audiences with electricity that galvanized his teammates and adoring fans. While every young hockey player wanted to play in the Olympics for his country, Henry helped the 1972 U.S. Olympic hockey team win its first medal since the 1960 gold medal-winning team at Squaw Valley.”
After the Olympics, Boucha played several seasons in the NHL, most notably for the Detroit Red Wings and Minnesota North Stars, where the promise of a fruitful NHL career was cut short at the butt end of a stick to his eye on January 4, 1975. Unable to overcome the injury, Boucharetired in 1976 after also playing with the Kansas City Scouts and Colorado Rockies, as well as the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the WHA.
Boucha eventually moved back to his beloved boyhood town of Warroad where he cherished living in the small, close-knit community. He worked as Indian Education Director in Warroad schools and became an advocate for Native American issues. He also became a beacon for Native American kids because of his legendary status as his warrior spirit never waned when it came time to help them.
Although Henry Boucha’s “fourth hill” may not have been as long to get him into older age, maybe that is a sign. Perhaps, there is no word for goodbye because of the belief there is a spirit that follows each of us, and it is the spirit that keeps us connected…much like the fallen warrior that lives on.
Tom & Jerry Caraccioli are the authors of STRIKING SILVER: The Untold Story of America’s Forgotten Hockey Team. (This article originally ran in the 2023 November/December issue of USA Hockey Magazine).
National Native American Heritage Month is observed in November and calls attention to the culture, traditions, and achievements of the nation's original inhabitants and of their descendants. To learn more about Native American Heritage Month visit www.nativeamericanheritagemonth.gov