Getting in the Game – Featuring Carla MacLeod

Jun 9, 2023 | News

Inclusion within the game of hockey is a reminder that when we all play together, we all win together.

Making an effort to ensure everyone has the opportunity to “get into the game”, giving every player a safe and inclusive space where they can step out of their comfort zone and find personal growth, is an intentional act that can spark a ripple effect of confidence and positive change in someone’s life.

Throughout her time in the game of hockey, Carla MacLeod has achieved success at every level. A two-time Olympic gold medallist, she’s represented Canada on the international stage many times through her incredible playing career and continues to find success as a coach, both abroad for the women’s national teams of Japan and Czechia, as well as at home for the University of Calgary Dinos women’s hockey team and her local HEROS chapters.  But no matter the age or skill level of the players, Carla makes it clear that fostering a culture of inclusion and belonging is always the first and most important step to finding success.

Born in Spruce Grove, Alberta, Carla began playing hockey at a young age, asking her parents to sign her up when she was four. But for young girls in the mid-eighties, that wasn’t always the norm.

“My parents allowed me to go on the journey that I needed to go on. I feel like all those pieces coming together at the right time allowed me the opportunity to play for the national team for as long as I did. Obviously, the coaches at that level make the experience what it is. But the journey to get there was definitely a community event and that’s great for those around me.”

As she explains, it was support from her family and community that made it possible to play the game.

“We lived in a cul-de-sac and in that cul-de-sac, there were just a ton of kids and we all just gravitated to the game and started playing street hockey,” said Carla. “We had the pond behind the house, but we’d all race home from school, get our skates on as quickly as we could to keep playing. I was really fortunate to have that natural environment built around me and obviously our parents around the cul-de-sac facilitated that too by building the rinks and making sure that we could play.”

As Carla got older, she began moving her game from the pond to the arena, where she recalls spending the majority of her minor hockey days as the only girl on her team.

Reflecting back on that period in her life, she remembers how amazing her coaches and teammates were in making space for her to play the game she loved, despite the differences between her and her team.

“The gratitude at which I look back on those coaches and my teammates and those parents and how accepting they were,” said Carla. “Just to be embraced, to be allowed just to play the game and not be hit with all the stuff we see and the challenges that can be faced by that. I didn’t overtly face those challenges, I was really, wholeheartedly embraced. I look at that now and I think that I’m so fortunate because that’s really the root system. That’s the foundation where my confidence could start to grow. I was allowed to learn the game and grow with the game just like everyone else that was playing the game.”

Now, Carla witnesses HEROS and SuperHEROS players finding that same sense of acceptance within the game thanks to the support of their teammates, volunteers and coaches. She sees players discovering their own capabilities by being allowed that same opportunity that she had herself many years ago.

“I think it’s what HEROS and SuperHEROS does every day that they’ve got the kids on the ice, they’re validating kids,” said Carla. “They’re showing kids that they matter, and when you invest in kids and you invest in people, the payoff is exponential. I think that’s why HEROS and SuperHEROS is such a natural draw for me because they’re seeing the best in everyone, and I think too much in life we try to find the flaws in people instead of finding the successes in people and the beautiful traits within people. So, to me, HEROS and SuperHEROS is who I look to, to continue learning about that.”

From her first interaction with the HEROS program during the early 2000’s, when she met HEROS Founder Norm Flynn and Executive Director Kevin Hodgson, Carla recalls that, even in those early days, she could see Norm and Kevin’s passions and visions for the program: they wanted to break any and all barriers to make it possible for more young players to play, learn and grow through the game of hockey. Beginning her journey as a HEROS mentor while she was acting as head coach at a prep school, Carla knew that what HEROS was doing aligned perfectly with her own philosophy and vision for the game.  In her own words “It didn’t take me long at my first year there to reach out back to Kevin and ask ‘How can we partner? What can we do?’”

“And for the next seven years,” said Carla. “We became great friends with the kids and families and the volunteers at the program.”

Over the years, Carla has seen countless stories of resilience, success and inspiration at all levels of the game, giving her the opportunity to develop a unique perspective on the similarities between its most basic roots and its highest levels.

“Last year, little AJ in SuperHEROS here in Calgary scored his first goal and I happened to capture it and I sent it to his mom,” said Carla. “She wrote back and said ‘She was just in tears’, you know, because that’s her son’s first goal. His excitementwas something I’ll never forget. That’s your joy that the game can bring when the game is done properly.  I got to live that too with the Czech women’s national team when we won bronze at world’s last summer. The purity of that experience matched AJ’s because it was just somewhat unassuming. So, the pure joy that those moments can bring when you invest in people and you’re actually just saying to them, ‘wait till you see how great you are’. I see it already but wait till you see it, and that’s what I thought for AJ in that moment. He knew he could do it.”

HEROS has served more than 17,000 young people over the past 23 seasons, providing a safe and inclusive environment for them to grow, connect and succeed through the game of hockey. But there’s still so much work to do to ensure more players like AJ get that same opportunity, which is why HEROS is grateful to have inspirational coaches like Carla MacLeod, who are proactively working towards making inclusion in the game of hockey a reality for all.

“We need the greater hockey community to continue to embrace that,” said Carla. “I think the world is changing in a lot of ways for the better, for sure. But there’s a lot of work to do to make sure that the game is inclusive, and I don’t think we’re anywhere near that level yet. It’s not lost on me the impact that Kevin and his team and those kids have on me, and I think it’s just bottling that up and taking that to the next entity to say, ’hey, look what’s out here. Look what these guys are doing. What can we do to help them and what can we do to build upon them’ and that’s where I feel inspired.”

Thank you, Carla, for all you do for the game and for helping HEROS build something bigger than hockey. 

You can help Carla make an impact for the marginalized youth in your community by signing up to volunteer or making a donation today!