Updated: 3 p.m.
Minnesota hockey phenomenon Henry Boucha, a legend both on and off the ice, has died at age 72.
Boucha, who was Ojibwe, was a star player for Warroad High School, leading them to the state tournament in 1969 where they reached the title game before falling to Edina in overtime.
Boucha played in the 1972 Winter Olympics, earning a silver medal with the U.S. team. He then played in the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings and the Minnesota North Stars, wearing his trademark headband in the days before helmets were required.
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It was during a game with Minnesota in Jan. 1975 that a Boston Bruins player speared him in the eye with his stick and permanently damaged his eyesight. It effectively ended Boucha’s pro career, although he did play with Minnesota’s WHA Fighting Saints and ended his career with the NHL’s Kansas City Scouts, moving with them to become the Colorado Rockies, where he retired.
Those who knew him say he was never bitter or angry about the attack.
Boucha continued to play hockey for a few years. He later returned to Warroad where he sold real estate and owned a restaurant.
“I really got to know him when I started coaching one of his sons, Henry Jr. in peewee hockey,” said Son Shaugabay, who, like Boucha, is Ojibwe. He played hockey in Warroad nearly two decades after Boucha.
Shaugabay said Boucha was a beacon for Native kids because of his legendary status.
“That’s a connection for all Native kids that came after him in our community, self included, that you can play this sport, you can do these things. Even if you’re Native or you think you can’t, Henry inspired us all.”
But Shaugabay said what Boucha did after hockey might be even more important than his hockey success.
He worked as Indian Education Director in Warroad schools and spent years advocating for Native students.
“Just being the champion for the education of not only Native kids, but the education of non natives to understand the history and the culture and the heritage of the Native Americans in this area.”
Shaugabay said Boucha always stepped up to help when needed. As recently as this spring he made the long trek from Warroad to the state capitol to testify before the House Education Finance Committee on a bill to ban Native American nicknames in schools.
He opened with his own name
“Henry Boucha, my Indian name is Ogichidaa which means ‘Warrior’” he told the committee.
Boucha proceeded to educate committee members on the history of Ojibwe people in northern Minnesota, explaining why the local school should be able to use the Warrior nickname.
“Our ancestors shed a lot of blood there at Warroad and we certainly want to continue using and honoring the name in the future,” he said.
Teacher Dan Ninham will remember Boucha as a warrior, someone who alway stood ready to help his people. Ninham is Oneida, now retired after 30 years teaching in Bemidji, Minn., schools. He helped created the North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame in 2022. Boucha was one of the first inductees.
Ninham expected to see Boucha at this years induction ceremony two weeks ago.
“And Henry was ready to go. And a few days before he texts me that unfortunately he could not attend due to illness.”
“I talk as if he’s here. I know he’s gone. And he’s on his journey. But Henry is a part of all of us. And he led an honorable life. You know, he has contributed so much to to all of us. I’m a better person for knowing Henry Bouscha.”
In Warroad, Son Shaugabay said Boucha’s legacy will, of course, include his hockey exploits, but also his years of work to support Indian education. And Shaugaby will remember a man who remained humble and kind.
“When you have that kind of legendary status, I think you could be a burden but it seemed like he always had time for a picture for handshake for piece of advice, word of wisdom.”
In a Facebook post, Boucha’s daughter said funeral arrangements are pending but Henry Boucha’s funeral will be held in Warroad, where his legend was born.
Jess Myers, hockey writer for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications and Warroad native, was a guest on Morning Edition to talk about Boucha's lasting impact on Minnesota.
“When I was a kid growing up in the 80s, and playing youth hockey, I remember that the number 16 — nobody ever wore that on any of Warroad’s teams,” Myers said. “And that was because that was Henry’s number. Long before they officially had retired his number it was just done out of honor that he was that important to that community.”
He returned to Warroad where he was a coach, worked in real estate, was an American Indian educator and activist and advocate for Native Americans in sports.
Boucha was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.
The Minnesota Wild were among those who paid tribute to Boucha on social media after news of his passing, writing that “his was a hockey life like few others in the State of Hockey.”