In late summer 2016, as Abby Roque entered her freshman year at Wisconsin, one of her new teammates made a fleeting comment that forever changed her perspective. As Roque recalls, “They were like, I think you’re the first Indigenous hockey player I’ve ever met. Maybe even the first Indigenous person.”
In addition to belonging to the roughly 570-member Wahnapitae First Nation, part of the Ojibwe First Nation based in northern Ontario, Roque grew up in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., where one of every 10 residents is Native American. She attended communal powwows and other ceremonies. She skated on a rink owned by a local tribe, sharing the ice with kids who shared her culture. “She went to school every day with kids from the reserve,” says her father, Jim. “She just assumed everyone did that.”
But the college teammate’s admission helped awaken Roque to the realities of a wider, whiter hockey world. “That’s when it really clicked: Especially in America, being an Indigenous player isn’t very common,” she says. Rather than get deterred, though, Roque grew into an exception, leading the 2019 national champion Badgers in assists and later earning a top-three finalist for the 2020 Patty Kazmaier Award (top female college player). Now the 5' 7" center is poised to make history as the first Indigenous member of the U.S. women’s team at the Olympics, where she plans to use her platform to encourage other nonwhite players to follow in her skate marks.
“Reading articles, talking to other players, realizing the numbers of what others have faced through the game with getting racial slurs yelled at them, it becomes a lot more clear just how hard it is for minority players to be accepted,” Roque says. “I wanted to learn more. I wanted to do more.”
Roque, 24, is far from the only emerging star on the roster of the defending gold medalists, who ended a 20-year Olympic title drought in 2018 with a shootout win over rival Canada. Helping to replace retired veterans such as Kacey Bellamy, Meghan Duggan, and twins Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux are a couple of 19-year-olds: puck-moving blueliner Caroline Harvey and pot-stirring forward Abbey Murphy, a proud, self-described “little s---” on the ice. But out of this unproven group, no one shoulders bigger expectations than Roque (pronounced rock), especially after teammate and four-time Olympian Hilary Knight told reporters last year, “I think she’s going to be the best player in the world. Plain and simple.”
Roque is well-equipped to handle the weight. Wielding the longest and stiffest stick of any U.S. player, a 95-flex Bauer she’s favored since childhood, she wears down opponents with a sandpaper style she attributes to her four years of giving and taking legal hits in boys high school hockey. “She’s pretty intense on the ice,” Harvey says. “She grinds.” Yet Roque also ranks among Team USA’s most creative playmakers, turning both heads and ankles with an array of dangles and spin-o-ramas. “She comes up with these moves and capitalizes on them,” Murphy says. “She's just very smart, and hard to defend.”
Regardless of her performance in Beijing, though, Roque understands that she’ll stand out for reasons that have little to do with hockey: Among the 13 forwards, seven defenders and three goalies on Team USA, she is its lone nonwhite player. “And I think that’s real a shame,” Roque says. But she also sees an opportunity: What better place to showcase her story than on the sport’s biggest stage? “I’m lucky to have gotten all the way here, so I need to continue to push hockey to become more diverse,” Roque says. “I should be doing what I can to make it visible to people, so they know you can make it this far.”
Roque first took to the ice as a toddler, wearing older sister Emma’s hand-me-down figure skates on the family’s backyard rink. Formal lessons came next, but it quickly became clear that Abby had other plans. “We have this picture of her, 4 years old in figure skates and a snowsuit, setting up pucks and these little wooden Ikea chairs so she can do drills,” mother Julia says. “She always had an interest.”
The self-education later continued at nearby Lake Superior State, where Jim Roque, now a Maple Leafs scout, coached the Division I men. Making the short walk over most days after school, Roque eagerly absorbed all she could. She scoured the stick racks, taking note of curvatures and tape jobs. She studied YouTube highlights on a computer meant for players to do homework, and lurked in the stands at practice. “When he was busy in meetings and I knew that the ice was open,” Abby says of her dad, “I would go try things that I saw. I just wanted to be there and learn more than anything.”
Less clear was where that tireless work ethic could take her. "I grew up thinking I wanted to play in the NHL, and then there’s a point it clicks that you’re not gonna," Roque says. But inspiration wasn't far behind, in part thanks to a Team USA jersey, bearing the autographs of national team stars like Cammi Granato, Julie Chu and Angela Ruggiero, that Roque received as a gift from one of her dad's hockey-world connections. “That was the first time I had something signed by not an NHL player, but by amazing girls,” Roque says. “I was like, ‘Oh, no, I want to be that.’”
To get there, though, Roque decided to stay local and stick with boys’ hockey, making varsity at Sault Area High School as a freshman. “I got a couple of phone calls from the community, like, ‘You cut some boys,’ that whole thing,” then-coach John Ferroni says. “My response was, ‘You come watch her play, and if you got questions, you call me again.’ I never received one phone call back.” It hardly took long for Roque to win over teammates either; during one early-season road trip a heated debate broke out on the bus over the movie of choice. “I look back, and Abby’s got one of the kids in a headlock,” Ferroni says. “She wanted Elf, so that’s what we put on. It was a moment of, okay, Abby’s established herself.”
Then 5'4", Roque knew the challenges she was facing in choosing this road. “Looking across the ice my first game, I see some 6'3" guys and I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna get buried,’” she says. “But a lot of it was learning as you go. You can’t pull out of a check. You have to battle. I’m slower than most guy hockey players, so I had to figure out a way to beat them.” Crafty puck-handling and deft passing often did the trick here, though Roque wasn’t afraid to resort to truculence either. “My teammates took a little too good care of me the first two years, going after anybody who hit me,” Roque says. “And then by my senior year, I think they gave up on me. They were like, ‘You're tougher than a lot of us,’ because I ended up being the person either starting something or going to defend the freshman boys.”
Along the way Roque caught the attention of USA Hockey, which recruited her as a sophomore and junior onto its squads for the ‘14 and ‘15 under-18 world junior championships. “Her confidence started blooming after that,” Ferroni says. A gold medal in the latter tournament led to a long-awaited offer from Roque’s dream school that she eagerly accepted despite interest from more academically rigorous suitors. “I couldn’t even get her to go look at Harvard and Princeton,” Jim Roque says. “She’d written a letter to herself in the sixth grade saying she was going to Wisconsin. She was adamant.”
Looking back, Roque’s collegiate choice resonates with her father for two key reasons. The first involves her conscious desire to attend the same alma mater as Knight and Brianna Decker, former Badgers legends who later became her Olympic teammates. “Those were her heroes,” Jim Roque says. The second speaks to a factor in her rise that is just as influential as any on-ice skill.
As Jim Roque puts it, “She definitely marches to her own beat. She’s not really a crowd-follower.”
A few summers ago, Ferroni was strolling down a fairway at an area country club in Michigan when he heard someone hollering: Hey, coach! Hey, coach! Scanning the course for the source, Ferroni soon saw Roque, then on summer break from Wisconsin, traipsing across the green of the next hole over. “And I notice, she doesn’t have any socks or shoes on,” Ferroni says. “I said, ‘Abby, don’t ever change.’”
That she ever would seems unlikely. Not only because Roque describes herself as a “big believer” in the soothing powers of barefoot golf. “I can’t get away with that on every course, but yeah, me and my friends do it often,” she explains. “It’s nice to feel the grass beneath your toes and just play.” But because Roque has always been secure in her free-spiritedness. “I don't need to be with the flow of everybody,” she says. “I'm fine doing my own thing, being different or being a little crazy.”
Everyone has a story—or several. Ferroni remembers stopping at a gas station on the long ride back from a road game and instructing his players to stay on the bus while he picked up some extra cases of water. “I’m paying for the water, and Abby comes up behind me,” Ferroni says. “I asked what she was doing, and she said, ‘I didn’t think you meant me. I’m just getting my after-game ice cream.’”
Adds Team USA coach Joel Johnson, recalling when he first guided Roque on the U-18 team, “There's never been a kid who wears Crocs more. Everyone’s dressed in their pregame outfits, she comes down with the pants, the jacket, and Crocs. That’s just the way she is. And that’s what makes her special.”
She is still the same way inside the U.S. locker room, surrounded by heroes who now laud her. “She’s got that great infectious personality. Makes you laugh, doesn’t take herself too seriously,” Knight says. Adds Decker, “She is just, like, so chill. I love that.” Once the Crocs come off and her skates are laced up, though, a ready-to-rumble Roque emerges. “That’s why she’s so respected,” says Johnson, fondly recalling when she once skated by his old perch as a Minnesota assistant to chirp at him about face-off results during a heated Badgers-Gophers game. “She understands how to play the physical and mental side of hockey.” Knight took the praise even further in her comments to reporters last year, effectively anointing Roque as the future face of USA women’s hockey. “I just see the hunger to be great,” Knight says now. “It reminds me of when I was younger. It’s cool to be like, ‘Wow, this kid gets it.’”
For her part Roque is quick to parry the hype that followed such a blessing. “I told Hilary, ‘You’re jumping the gun here. Relax,’ ” she says. “I think it’s a lot of pressure, especially when you haven’t had much experience.” Indeed, she has logged just six senior international tournament games, all at the twice-rescheduled world championships in Calgary last August, when the U.S. finished second. Since then her training has been hampered by injuries: Upon returning from surgery to repair torn right ankle ligaments incurred in an October 2021 exhibition against Canada—doctors told her to expect an eight-week recovery; powering through workouts on anti-gravity and underwater treadmills, she was back skating in half that time—Roque promptly broke a finger on her left hand during practice.
And so, she admits, it has been a “challenging,” “weird” and “definitely strange” experience to receive such acclaim, when two years ago she barely believed the news that she had at last made the national team roster. “I was used to going to camp, and going home,” Roque says. “I remember asking two of my good friends from Wisconsin, like, ‘You saw my name, right?’” But she also feels ready—not only for the golden expectations that await in Beijing, but for the personal responsibility that comes with them.
So she continues to teach herself, reading articles about Native issues and reaching out to her uncle Larry Roque, now chief of the Wahnapitae First Nation, with questions about their tribe’s history. “I’m glad she’s taken on that role,” Larry says. She also preaches her message of inclusivity whenever possible, such as in a recent video campaign for Bauer in which she details her family’s story, including how her dad grew up hiding his Indigenous background in Canada out of fear of discrimination.
But she is also making a difference just by representing her people at the Olympics, where the U.S. opens its title defense against world No. 3 Finland on Feb. 3. People like Jim Roque and the other roughly 110 residents on the Wahnapitae reserve. “We have some girls out here who play hockey, and they always want me to let them know when she’s ever on TV,” he says. “They’re proud of her.”
And one day soon, Abby Roque hopes, they will follow her.
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