Imagine you’re 11 years old. It’s autumn in a northern First Nations community in Quebec, the weather is turning crisp and your hockey talent has already outgrown the surrounding area.
When most kids were trying to figure out a costume for Halloween, Israel Mianscum was trying to navigate through a new way of life, 147 kilometres from home without family or friends and playing hockey in a league with kids a year older.
Understandably, it wasn’t easy. Avoiding homesickness was impossible, but his mother made a deal – one she honoured faithfully; the family would drive nearly two hours every weekend from its home in Mistissini, a Cree community of around 4,000 people, to culturally identical Ouje-Bougoumou to visit him weekly in the pursuit of his hockey dreams.
If the move wasn’t difficult enough to start, it was further complicated by the loss of two family members – a grandfather and an uncle that same October. At that point just barely into the transition, it could have been easy to acquiesce and return home.
But the touchstone of daily phone calls and frequent visits from family eased the change and five years later there are few shoulder checks.
“He struggled to stay put at first,” says Tiffany Neeposh, Mianscum’s mom. “We knew he really wanted to play hockey and I knew he would be more broken if he came home.
“We did everything we could for him to stay there. He got used to it after a while. It was quite a year for him. He’s so much stronger today living without us.”
Of course, the longing for home didn’t just dissipate after one season. In fact, it took a few years to truly adjust.
What always eased the original move away from Mistissini was the comfort of being around other players that spoke Cree.
And in Quebec, where French is the dominant language and English a distant second, being able to speak your own tongue created cultural stability and a soothing environment for a wistful teenager.
However, at 14 and a few more moves down the hockey road, Mianscum suddenly found himself isolated and miles away from his upbringing as a member of the Citadelles de Rouyn-Noranda, a Midget Espoir team in western Quebec.
“That was a hard year for me,” he says. “I was alone. There was nobody to talk to me in my language. It was tougher for me than at 11.”
To cope, there was nothing else to do but pour his mind and body deeper into hockey and continue to develop. The results were impressive. He posted 29 goals and 56 points in 29 games to lead the league in scoring and earn MVP honours, despite being one of the youngest players.
“Looking back on what I did to leave to play hockey kind of amazes me now,” says the six-foot-one, 192-pound centre. “I’m proud of myself. I’m not homesick now.”
He graduated to the Forestiers de Amos of the Ligue de hockey midget AAA du Québec last season and had another stellar offensive campaign with 21 goals and 35 points in 36 games.
Those numbers and other assets eventually attracted the attention of the Sherbrooke Phoenix, who selected Mianscum with the 10th pick of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League draft last summer.
“The draft was exciting,” he says. “It was really fun. It was the best day of my life so far. That’s probably one of the best moments for my family. It makes all the sacrifices worth it.”
Mianscum started skating at the age of two. He was a natural, but the early beginning was aided by the annual construction of a backyard rink at home under the guidance and assembly of his mother and father, Louie.
His ability to propel himself around the ice so early in life certainly made it easy for his parents to realize he was special. And his mother knew it was inevitable that he was going to have to leave home in order to pursue his hockey dreams.
“From the very beginning he was very competitive,” says Neeposh, a hockey player herself. “We knew from there he was going to be different. He was so determined. He was always on the rink doing extra stuff like shooting pucks. He was always competing. Hockey is his passion.”
Now 16, Mianscum has found his way from small-town Quebec to the international stage as a member of Canada White at the 2019 World Under-17 Hockey Challenge.
“Israel is a real interesting prospect,” says Brad McEwen, head scout with Hockey Canada. “He has a good skill-set plus size, which makes him a double threat. He can play a bigger game or can play a skill game to create offence.”
“It’s a dream come true for me to play for Team Canada,” says Mianscum. “To represent [my country] is an honour. I’m proud of myself and I know my community is too.”
As a fan of the Montreal Canadiens, Mianscum looks to their Aboriginal goaltender Carey Price for inspiration. He admits to also following Edmonton Oilers defenceman Ethan Bear, too.
He hopes one day he’ll get even closer to realizing his goal of playing with or against either one of those players in the National Hockey League, thus becoming the first Quebec Cree player in the NHL.
“That’s everyone’s goal,” he says of the NHL. “It’s my goal too. That’s what I want to do. But there is so many things I need to improve on. I’ll take it day-by-day. I just need to make sure I play my game all the time.”
And it appears he’s right at home doing that.