January 7, 2016 | Valerie Fortney | Calgary Herald
He was a kid with few prospects, getting into trouble with the police as he flirted with gang life. He was only eight years old.
“Everything a family would need was an issue,” says Malik Walker of his early years growing up in poverty. “When my parents split up, that was when my anger spilled over to fights with my mom, fights at school.”
Then someone offered Walker a helping hand — or in this case, a hockey stick. The boy who had hardly skated was soon playing on a team, thanks to the Hockey Education Reaching Out Society, better known as HEROS (heroshockey.com), an organization that brings the game to at-risk youth.
No surprise that a decade later Walker laughs when asked if his beloved game is more than a sport to him.
“Hockey is a way to bond and build healthy relationships,” he says. “Just having the chance to be a kid when things are tough can change the direction of a life.”
The start of a new year is a busy time in this city for hockey kids. Over the Christmas break, the Mac’s Midget World Invitational featured some of the country’s best male and female prospects competing. Starting Friday, Esso Minor Hockey Week (hockeycalgary.ca) will see up to 12,000 boys and girls from across the country — cheered on by more than 20,000 spectators — converge on 50 arenas around the city as 650 teams play 900 games.
“It’s the big exciting week for hockey kids and fans,” says Kevin Kobelka of the tournament that has been in the city for 46 years, the past 35 with Esso as its lead sponsor, noted for being the largest minor hockey tournament in the world.
According to Kobelka, who serves as executive director for Hockey Calgary, the sport has never been more popular among local youngsters.
“We’ve seen a five per cent increase in registration this year,” he says of its various hockey programs. “We had the big Mac’s tourney over Christmas, but now this one focuses on all the kids — it doesn’t matter if you’re at the lowest or the highest level of hockey playing.”
Still, these are tough times for the city and province. Hockey is a costly sport for kids to take up, something that has left those trying to help keep a level playing field scrambling. For instance, the Flames Even Strength Program, which receives support from Hockey Calgary, the Calgary Flames Foundation and KidSport, has seen a significant jump in financial assistance applications.
Kobelka says that while funding the playing for those in need has become more of a challenge, it’s even more important to stay the course.
“I’ve been playing hockey since I was five,” he says. “It’s taught me so many lessons, like being a team player, learning how to interact with others. When everyone is struggling, kids need those opportunities more than ever.”
While Kevin Hodgson is proud that a few of his young charges will be on the ice this week as participants in Esso Minor Hockey Week, that’s not the most important thing on his mind.
“It’s not about being the best on the ice,” says Hodgson, the head of program development for Calgary’s HEROS, with the Calgary Flames Foundation a big supporter of the local branch of the national organization.
“Our success measurement is really using hockey to inspire and motivate young kids to dream, to pick themselves back up when they fall on the ice or in any other aspect of their life.”
A former social worker, Hodgson feels he can positively affect more lives on a rink than anywhere else.
“My hockey coaching skills aren’t going to send anyone to the NHL,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve seen so many kids come to our programs in Forest Lawn and Bowness who start to believe they can dream like others and make those dreams come true.”
Most days, he doesn’t have to look too far to see his philosophy in action. In between finishing high school and working at a full-time retail job, Malik Walker can often be found on the ice in his Forest Lawn neighbourhood, guiding new recruits to the HEROS program.
“I don’t know where I would have ended up if I hadn’t had this chance,” says the young man, who plans to pursue a career in social work or youth justice. “I want to be able to help other kids make good choices in life.”