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O'Reilly bringing youth hockey team to game in Ottawa

First Nation team faced racist comments, chants from opposing players, coaches and fans in tournament last May

by Chris Pinkert / St. Louis Blues

Bonnie O'Reilly was at her home in Bayfield, Ontario when her niece sent her an article about a First Nation teenage hockey team that had faced racism in a Quebec City tournament last May.

Right then, she knew she had to do something about it.

"My husband and I fostered teenagers. We had over 47 teenagers live with us over the course of 21 years, so I have a soft spot for them. I think they're great," Bonnie told stlouisblues.com. "Of the boys that lived with us, two of them were First Nation boys, so I've always been sensitive to the plight they had."

According to reports, the First Nation Elites Bantam AAA hockey team faced hurtful comments and chants from the opposing players, coaches, fans and even referees, who they believe called the tournament games unfairly. After reading the story, Bonnie called her son, Ryan, to share it with him.

"It was very sad. It breaks my heart that anyone would treat children in that fashion," Bonnie said. "I thought, 'We need to do something to let these kids know that there are lots of people out here that don't feel that way and instead want to be supportive of them.'"

"It was upsetting," Ryan O'Reilly told stlouisblues.com about the situation. "I think both me and my mom were upset about it. That's not what the game is about. We say Hockey Is For Everyone, and that was just disgusting. There's no place in the game for it."

Ryan and his mother came up with a plan to invite the entire team, which consists of 13 to 15 year olds from Northern Quebec and Eastern Ontario, to Thursday's game between the St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre. The players will be traveling to Ottawa from all over Canada - including one who will travel by plane from Whapmaagoostui, Quebec to Chisasibi, then will drive nearly 16 hours to Ottawa.

Video: O'Reilly hosts First Nation team in Ottawa

The players will attend the morning skate, where they will meet Ryan and some of his teammates before the game. Bonnie and her husband, Brian O'Reilly, will take the entire team to lunch in Ottawa before bringing them back to enjoy the game from seats in the lower bowl.

Ryan purchased 35 tickets for the team, which is enough for each player to also bring a parent to the game.

"It was all my mom. She had the idea," Ryan said. "She's obviously such an amazing woman, a selfless person who will do anything for anyone. They're going to come to the morning skate and I'm going to get a chance to meet them. At that age, getting to see an NHL game, it will be an exciting time.

"I just want to tell them 'Keep enjoying and keep loving playing the game,'" he said. "'Don't let anyone tell you that you can't."

Tommy Neeposh, who manages the Elite team and organized it so that many of the First Nation players could play high-level hockey and be noticed by scouts, remembers the day Bonnie reached out to him on Facebook.

"When Ryan's mother contacted me, I had to repeat myself," Neeposh recalled. "'WHAT?! You're Ryan O'Reilly's mother? THE Ryan O'Reilly from the NHL?' I was like, 'Give me two minutes, I need to collect myself.' I was like a little kid, all hyped up. I looked at my wife and told her - do you know who just contacted me? Wow, just wow. It was amazing, Ryan O'Reilly thinking of doing something like that… This is something amazing, especially for the kids. They can't wait. They've been talking about it all week, and now they're counting down the days until Thursday. They're mature, like 14 and 15 years old, but they seem like little kids again. It's awesome."

Since the incident, Neeposh has dedicated himself to raising awareness and trying to prevent situations like the one that happened last May.

"I knew a player five or six years ago who faced racism in a game and he just dropped everything," Neeposh said. "He quit hockey, he just quit and he was such a good player. He quit everything and he went back home and said 'I've had enough of this, I don't want to deal with this anymore.' And he turned to alcohol and drugs. That's what I'm trying to avoid. It's sad, but this is happening. I'm just trying to fight this and I'm going to fight it in a positive way."

Bonnie will be bringing T-shirts and helmet stickers to Ottawa as gifts for the team courtesy of Players Against Hate, an organization created to increase awareness and prevent racism and name-calling in sports. In addition, Ryan will be bringing Blues T-shirts for the players, too.

"It's no surprise he's doing this, because he's always been a generous and sensitive person," Bonnie said of Ryan's generosity. "From the time he was little, if he could help other kids in school, he always did those sorts of things. I know he feels fortunate to have the life he has, but he's always giving back and that makes me proud. He cares."

"My boys are going to get a lot out of this," Neeposh added. "This will motivate them to really focus on chasing their dreams, trying to make it to the NHL. This is a huge motivator for our boys. These kids will never forget this for the rest of their lives. We're speechless, you know? Words can't express what we're feeling."

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