Andrew Ference wants children everywhere to smile. He wants them to be able to play. He wants them to have a chance to go to school. He wants them to be able to be kids.
So, Ference contacted Right To Play, an international, athlete-driven humanitarian organization that uses sport and play to help children in the most disadvantaged areas of the world.
Ference, 27, knew very little about Right To Play but, during the National Hockey League lockout, he was in Czechoslovakia, in his hotel room when the organization caught his attention.
"I was in the hotel room and there was only one channel, the BBC. And they did an in-depth documentary on the organization. It was really interesting," said Ference.
Visit the Right To Play website
Right To Play skate website
Having traveled to countries like Africa and Brazil, and seen some of the conditions in those countries, Ference was intrigued by the work of the group.
"Honestly, we can't relate to a lot of what goes on, being from Canada," said Ference. "The kids and youth that they help are AIDS orphans, child soldiers and refugees. Some of the kids are 14 and they've been to war. What Right To Play does is introduce a childhood where the kids can laugh and play with friends. Sometimes they have never done that.
Ference, who makes his off-season home in Canmore, just west of Calgary, also trains with Canadian Olympic athletes, some of whom were involved with Right To Play. When he looked at the list of athletes working with the organization, he noticed Wayne Gretzky as an ambassador. But there were no current hockey players on the list.
Always a man of action, Ference picked up the phone and called Right To Play and got the ball rolling. He's now an ambassador for the program, which is holding a fund-raiser, the Harris Steel Right to Play Skate on Nov. 18 at the Olympic Oval in Calgary.
Among the other athletes attending the event are Clara Hughes and Catriona Le May Doan, Olympic speed skating gold medallists, Roslyn and Jon McCann, Olympic rowers and strongman Marshall Ennis. Similar events are scheduled for Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal as Right To Play's annual signature fundraising and awareness event in Canada.
Clara Hughes, you might recall, pledged $10,000 of her own money to Right To Play at the Torino Olympics earlier this year and challenged businesses and individuals to help raise money for the organization. The goal was to raise $500,000 and, according tot he Right To Play website, about $480,000 has been raised through Clara's Challenge. American speed skater Joey Cheek donated his medal-winning bonus money from the United States Olympic Association to the cause and ran a similar challenge to Hughes. Both have since traveled to the underprivileged countries and regions to work at the grassroots of the program.
Right To Play's symbol is a red soccer ball -- soccer being the most international of all sports. The idea is a simple one. Introduce sports and teams to promote fun, cooperation, education and immunization. Ference noted that, despite the problems between Israel and Palestine, the group has managed to bring kids from both groups together to play games.
"These are kids that might never get that opportunity. They might grow up not liking each other just because of the situation. They might not know anything different. But really, kids just want to play. It doesn't matter who they are playing with," said Ference.
"Before, they probably didn't have any reason to go to school. Now they want to go to school because they are on a team and they get to play games with other kids."
The organization's official website states: "Right To Play uses sport and play to promote opportunities for development, health and peace and "everyday we witness the positive impact sport has on refugee children, former child combatants, and young people at risk or orphaned by HIV/AIDS."
It also lists some of the ways it works to reach its goal:
- In refugee camps, sport and play programs are encouraging healthy child development and teaching important life skills like teamwork, communication, fair play and self esteem.
- In the Middle East, sport and play programs are being used to build bridges between¬?all children and youth and their¬?communities in the region.
- In Africa, sport and play are being used to reach youth with life-saving HIV awareness and prevention education.
As word, and the red ball spread, more and more corporations have started to support the program, including heavy hitters like NIKE and GAP.
"It's a simple concept that has results," said Ference.
Other NHL players involved with the program include Alexander Ovechkin and Matt Pettinger, both of the Washington Capitals and Alexander Steen from Toronto. More are expected to join the program in the coming months as the NHL and the NHLPA become more involved.
Ference, for now, will work on promoting the program here in Canada and is considering having a charity bike ride in the off-season. Eventually, though, he wants to get out on the field and do some helping firsthand.
He wants to see those smiling faces in person.
"First and foremost they teach these kids to smile," said Ference. "Some of them have never smiled."
The Harris Steel Right to Play Skate takes place between 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18 at the Olympic Oval in Calgary. The event is free for anyone under 18. For more information please visit Righttoplayskate.com¬?