NHLer Evander Kane of the Winnipeg Jets made his first strides on ice at three years of age, and under the guidance of his father learned to skate at community rinks around Vancouver.
One of those was Britannia, where he returned Wednesday morning to lend his profile to H.E.R.O.S., a year-round hockey academy for children and teens who otherwise couldn’t afford the equipment and club fees to play Canada’s winter game.
“It gives kids an opportunity that they might not normally have,” said Kane, 20, who went to Henderson elementary and graduated from John Oliver secondary.
“For me, growing up not to far away form here and skating here for the first time, I remember coming here for public skate all the time with my dad. Giving back to the kids and having them be able to meet some players who made it to the NHL, hopefully one day maybe that’s what they want to do and they know that they can do that.”
H.E.R.O.S., which stands for Hockey Education Reaching Out Society, sets its mission as “empowering children on ice,” and operates in cities across Canada. The privately funded, non-profit enterprise was started at Britannia in 2000 by Norm Flynn. The Vancouver School Board selects Vancouver students who come from single-parent or low-income families and, in some cases, have behavioural problems.
Wednesday marked the beginning of a four-day summer camp. Children who’d never laced into skates or stood on ice tried the sport for the first time.
Mohammed Izzat, 13, plays soccer and ball hockey but his family didn’t sign him up for league hockey because of the cost. The rink game with the puck is more demanding because he has to skate, keep his head up and get involved with the play. “Ball hockey, you’re on your feet standing,” he said.
Izzat was excited to meet Kane, a hockey player he knew by name for his history with the Memorial Cup-winning Vancouver Giants. He wanted to meet another pro hockey player from his hometown.
“Lucic,” he asked, “Why isn’t Milan Lucic coming, too? I don’t like Boston but I like him. He’s big and tough.”
Dozens of pairs of new and donated hockey skates, shin guards, helmets, sticks and other equipment will be used for other children in future seasons or other cities.
Roy Boutilier, who volunteers with H.E.R.O.S. in the Sunshine Coast and was at Britannia picking up equipment, said ensuring children get gear suited for their size and shape is a priority. “We take kids whose parents just don’t have the money,” he said. About the program’s founder, Flynn, he said, “You can be proud of him for starting such a program in this city.”
The Vancouver Police Department supports H.E.R.O.S. Kane recently learned of the program through a friend who is a police officer. He supported the emphasis on education.
“You want to have as many doors open to you as possible,” he said. “When the kids understand that, I think it gives them a better drive and a goal to reach in terms of their academics.”
Once young skaters build their hockey skills and mature into their teens, they can start to mentor others.
Artem Oussoltsev started when he was 10 and, now at 16, mentors younger players. “There is a very large community that is willing to help,” he said, adding that H.E.R.O.S. targets “supposedly at-risk, inner-city children” but not necessarily youth who are destined for trouble if they didn’t have access to sports.
“It gives them something else to do, something they otherwise wouldn’t have done.”
Did the program keep him out of trouble? “It helped me play hockey,” he said.
After the 36 kids suited up and tied their skates, at least four of them for the very first time in their lives, and started summer camp, Kane joined them on the ice for a brief introduction.
“I remember coming out here pretty much every week, at least three or four times a week with my dad. If you guys work really hard, you can accomplish the goals you set out for yourself, whether that be hockey or school or whatever it might be.”
Izzat, a talkative teen who starts at Windermere next year in Grade 8, stood near the back of the crowd and lobbed the NHLer his first question: “Why aren’t you playing for the Canucks?”
Kane, who comes from an accomplished athletic family and was named for his father’s favourite boxer, Evander Holyfield, offered his best reply: “What media person told you to say that?”