Ex-NHLer Willie O'Ree helps Taylor Schoffer, 11, put on her hockey equipment at Marymound School Thursday. It's courtesy of the HEROS program.
SOME HOCKEY HEROS COME TO THE INNER CITY
Winnipeg kids given chance to play in Canada's game
By: Geoff Kirbyson
IF the 36 kids participating in an inner-city hockey program have half the energy on the ice that they did when trying on new elbow pads, knee pads and helmets Thursday afternoon, opponents will definitely need to keep their heads up.
The gymnasium at Marymound School was a blur of Boxing Day-like madness as free equipment from the Hockey Education Reaching Out Society (HEROS) program was being tried on, discarded and replaced with a new item just seconds later.
Quietly providing advice on how skates should fit or how long sticks should be was Willie O'Ree, known as the Jackie Robinson of hockey for breaking the NHL's colour barrier more than a half-century ago. The now 74-year-old was called up by the Boston Bruins to play against the Montreal Canadiens in January 1958. He played 45 games with the Bruins, scoring four goals and 14 points over parts of two seasons.
As the director of the NHL's diversity programming, O'Ree oversees 33 non-profit programs across North America. He speaks to students at more than 40 schools annually and if it weren't for a recent knee replacement, he'd have been out skating Thursday afternoon as the kids took to the ice, most of them for the first time.
"I let the boys and girls know there's another sport they can play," he said, noting hockey is no longer exclusively a white man's sport. "They just never had the opportunity to play."
"I never had new gear like this when I was growing up. I didn't get new gear until I was playing junior in Quebec City in 1954."
Taylor Schoffer, 11, who's in Grade 6 at William Whyte School, was bouncing around the gym in her new HEROS jersey. She's been playing hockey for only a couple of years, but she's already dreaming of playing on Team Canada in the Winter Olympics. "Hockey is fun," she said.
Vicky Marceniuk, 12, a Grade 7 student at Marymound, agreed. She said the best part is "falling on your butt."
But, she was quick to add, HEROS is also about "good behaviour, respecting your teammates and opponents and being a better person."
HEROS was launched in 2000 by former Winnipegger Norm Flynn. The 49-year-old started the program because he wanted to provide an opportunity for disadvantaged kids in Vancouver, which he now calls home, to play hockey.
HEROS has been so successful, it's about to expand into Montreal and North York, Ont., its eighth and ninth cities across Canada. The latter will arguably be its most challenging, bringing two very different schools together in a single program.
"Kids are recruited from one school for the Bloods and from the other school for the Crips. We want to get to them first," Flynn said.
O'Ree had to deal with much more than the league's colour barrier during his career. When he was 18, he took a puck in his right eye, robbing him of 97 per cent of the vision in that eye.
He didn't tell any of his coaches and after retraining himself to use his good eye to see as much of the ice as possible, was back playing full-time. He played 18 seasons in four professional leagues, twice leading the Western Hockey League in scoring.
"If they had had eye exams back then, I couldn't have played," he said.
O'Ree said his message to kids is they can do anything they set their minds to, provided they're willing to put in the effort.
"There's no substitute for hard work. If you work 40 per cent, don't expect to get 80 per cent," he said.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 24, 2010 A3