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National Indigenous History Month

Ottawa Sting U12 AA

Members of the Ottawa Sting U12 AA team learned a lot more than just hockey skills this past season. Building upon the impacts of the inaugural National Day of Truth and Reconciliation (“Orange Shirt Day”) on September 30th, 2021 and the recent events related to Residential Schools prompting the Every Child Matters movement, the Sting decided they wanted to make a difference in the hockey community.

The team discussed the idea that hockey is more than a game – it is a way to connect, build character and be inclusive. With these ideas in mind, they set out three initiatives to turn words into action and to help raise awareness and advance reconciliation between non-Indigenous and Indigenous peoples in Canada.

These initiatives included: breaking down barriers and inclusion; raising awareness about Indigenous issues among their team and the general public; and community building through hockey. This seems like no small task for a team of twelve-year-olds, but the Sting had a plan and they were able to execute it phenomenally.

The Sting first contacted John Chabot, former NHL player and coach, and founder of the Indigenous-led and focused charity First Assist that has worked with more than 3,000 Indigenous youths, delivering on-site education and sports integration programming. The First Assist has a goal of drawing attention to the dire living conditions of Indigenous Communities in Canada while also inspiring those community members that they can dream of something bigger.

John connected the Sting with the remote community of Algonquin Barriere Lake in Rapid Lake, Quebec, three hours north of Ottawa. Chabot says that the community is similar in many ways to small fly-in only communities. The village is powered by a back-up generator and the nearest high school is 90 minutes south in Maniwaki.

Each of the three initiatives that the Sting set out involved elements of fundraising and education for the players. They began trying to break down barriers and increase inclusion to hockey by focusing on the financial barriers that some families face and helping to alleviate the high cost of equipment. These high costs are especially true for Indigenous players growing up in remote locations.

They set a goal of outfitting 40 Indigenous hockey players from Rapid Lake in support of First Assist Charity. They then enlisted the help of the hockey community and Ottawa residents. The Sting challenged the other teams in their league to collect used equipment and bring the donations to their games. They also took to social media to get the word out to the rest of the city.

The result – 12 new full hockey starter kits, 79 pairs of skates, 60 helmets, 40 sets of shoulder pads, 20 sets of gloves, 76 pairs of hockey pants and 30 hockey bags, along with $2,000 in direct monetary donations to First Assist through the social media campaign!

Players and parents took their fundraising initiative to the streets and the Rideau Canal Skateway armed with 196 rolls of orange hockey tape that were donated by Renfrew Pro Tape. While collecting donations, they interacted with the public to raise awareness about residential schools using the orange tape as a conversation starter. In total, the fundraising campaign brought in over $500 to be donated to the Orange Shirt Society and sparked many educational conversations about Indigenous peoples in Canada.

The Sting and Chabot met to discuss the needs of the Algonquin Barriere Lake community. Then came the plan for their third initiative - community building in hockey. The Algonquin Barriere Lake community is healing from a mental health/suicide crisis. First Assist has been working with the kids using sport as a focus and giving them a sense of purpose and strength. The group decided on a home and home Friendship Game series they called Building Bridges with the focus on building relationships and making connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous youth.

The first of the two Friendship Games took place on February 27th when the Ottawa Sting hosted a group of kids from Kitigan Zibi and Rapid Lake. A Kitigan Zibi resident generously donated a bus to shuttle the kids to Ottawa. Once everyone arrived at the rink, both teams were able to meet for the first time as the Sting players handed out sets of equipment to their new friends.

Teams then hit the ice and were mixed to promote interaction and team play. The game was a full hockey experience including time keeping, music, announcers and refs. The community of Rapid Lake does not have an indoor arena so this was a first time experience for many of the children. The group then gathered at a local restaurant for their post game meal and to get to know each other even more. The entire day was a successful celebration of bridge building. “The Friendship Game was great because it didn’t matter what level anybody played – we all just had fun. I hope we can do it again”, boasted Cole McRae of the Ottawa Sting.

Thanks to the support from HEO, the Ottawa Sting Minor Hockey Association and private donations, a memorable experience was not only provided for all involved, but $700 was also raised for First Assist through a raffle. “Hockey brings people together. I really think we made some connections today. This is a model that any association can use to build bridges between these communities”, said Cam Potter, Coach of the Ottawa Sting U12 AA.

The second half of the Friendship Games was to see the Ottawa Sting travel to Rapid Lake and play another game, this time on the community’s outdoor rink. Due to Covid, the group had to pivot and ended up travelling in May to visit and play a game of ball hockey instead. It was a unique experience for the Sting players to see the realities of life for Indigenous children, share in their culture and share in new experiences. “Visiting Rapid Lake really opened my eyes. I didn’t know it was like this in Canada. I’m really glad that we are able to bring hockey to the younger kids”, said William Maguire, Ottawa Sting player.

“We played ball hockey and shared a meal with the kids as well. It couldn’t have gone better”, said Cherill Baynham, Sting treasurer and a big organizer for this entire project. More equipment was generously donated by CCM and handed out during the ball hockey game as well. “I love hockey! I can’t skate yet but I will next time you come”, said Journey, age 6 from Rapid Lake.

The Sting have one more gift planned for the players of Rapid Lake. Through their fundraising efforts, they were able to purchase a Sparx skate sharpening machine that will be given to the residents of Rapid Lake this summer. Currently the closest skate sharpening store is 90 minutes away in Maniwaki.

When this season’s version of the Ottawa Sting U12 AA formed in September they knew they wanted to make an impact more than just on the ice. Inspired by the inaugural National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, they’ve learned not only themselves about the impacts of residential schools and systemic racism in Canada, but have brought awareness to the topic in their community as well.

Despite the entire topic being a heavy one for a group of 12-year-olds, they have been very successful in their efforts. During the process of the past several months they’ve learned more about residential schools and Indigenous communities, hoping the experience will serve as a bridge to more awareness of Canada’s Indigenous issues. They’ve also made friendships and long-lasting connections – exactly what hockey is all about.

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