Today I spent the afternoon diving into the history and mission of Hockey Education Reaching Out Society (HEROS). When we spoke about the program’s member cities, and specifically the Belfast Ireland contingent, I was reminded one of my fondest hockey memories. It had to do with being part of something unique and much greater than myself.
It was October 2001, which I remember clearly because it was shortly after the terrible 9/11 attacks in the United States. I had just signed a contract with the London Knights of the British Superleague, which to that point was the highest level of hockey I had played. This was a big deal for me. I was one of only a few players who had not played in the American Hockey League and the other players who hadn’t played AHL had played in leagues like the Finnish Elite league. My centerman in my first game was fellow Manitoban and former Toronto Maple Leaf Mark Kolozar. I had looked up to Mark growing up, so this was an amazing opportunity for me.
I walked into the visitors’ locker room in Belfast, Northern Ireland and saw my jersey, folded in my stall, the crest embodying some sort of English shield and turned it around to see my name on the back. It felt heavy in my hands and I couldn’t wait to put it on. Sometimes I wonder why that moment is such a vivid memory.
The London Knights ran a first-class operation as member of the Phil Anschutz empire. Anschutz owns the LA Kings, Staples Center and a whole bunch more so I felt part of a professional operation. It was all so new and exciting. I had never flown to a game before and there I was playing for the London Knights, in Northern Ireland, in front of a sold out crowd of Catholic and Protestant fans in a country too well known for sectarian violence and discrimination, even in sport.
The Giants’ stadium was built by a staff consisting of Catholic and Protestant workers, on the border of two religiously divided neighbourhoods. The team chose colours that weren’t tied to either religion and even the choice of a Giant, a mythical creature, as the mascot was meant to dissuade sectarian controversy.
I love Belfast! Staff in our hotel and at the rink could not have been more welcoming and helpful to us. So, I suppose when I looked at the crest on the front of my jersey and my family name on the back and saw the crowd of loyal, non-sectarian supporters cheering in solidarity against my team, I felt like hockey gave me the opportunity to be part of a solution to a centuries-old problem. No wonder my jersey felt so heavy in my hands. I loved it!
Hockey Education Reaching Out Society (HEROS) is a volunteer-driven charity that uses the game of ice hockey to teach life skills to at-risk and marginalized youth. HEROS has partnered with Child and Youth Workers to bring together marginalized youth from both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The program seeks to promote the mutual understanding and co-operation between citizens of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. With HEROS, young people are educated about the commonalities of each other’s lives and empowered to help diminish the political and religious prejudices between both cultures.
The Irish initiative partners with the National Hockey League Players Association to send hockey equipment to Belfast and run the on ice portion of the program. Given Ireland’s history the message that Hockey is For Everyone carries added meaning in that through hockey, people of diverse political and religious backgrounds can play together.
OneMillionSkates.com is the official publication of HEROS. Together we strive to engage, educate and inspire Canada’s youth while celebrating hockey. For more information about HEROS, visit www.heroshockey.com.