It's become a tradition for NHL goaltenders to sport specialty masks to recognize team and league causes, but the custom-made, one-of-a-kind masks that Winnipeg Jets Connor Hellebuyck and Laurent Brossoit wore to support mental health awareness at the Jan. 31 #HockeyTalks game carried extra special meaning.
Project 11 students took what they've learned in the True North Youth Foundation's (TNYF) proactive mental wellness program, put their pen to paper and submitted their own personal mental health awareness designs to potentially be included on the two hockey masks worn by the Jets netminders.
Yanna, a Grade 10 student at Dakota Collegiate said "it was awesome when I found out that my designs were going to be on the masks and I just really hope the goalies liked what I drew."
Yanna didn't have to wait long to get Brossoit's and Hellebuyck's seal of approval as she was fortunate to meet with the players ahead of the game. Brossoit was quick to ask her what portions of his mask she designed and what they meant to her.
"I drew the hands reaching out trying to touch. One of the hands has bright red veins and the other doesn't have any colour and I was trying to show that by reaching out and feeling that spark, you can bring light to the other person," Yanna answered.
The drawings represent what Yanna has learned through Project 11's classroom curriculum. She is now equipped with several coping strategies and said by reaching out to others, everything gets so much easier and it feels good when you know there are people around you willing to help.
"You just have to realize that they want to be there for you. And that's something I didn't know until I asked for help," she said.
Holding his new mask, Hellebuyck said "the 'reach out' message means everyone can ask for help and there are people out there who want to help, all you have to do is ask."
Hellebuyck told the student designers it's important for him that younger generations see that professionals like himself struggle sometimes but "we're all in this together."
Former Project 11 student Herlinda can relate to Hellebuyck's sentiments and the opportunity to contribute to the masks only emphasized this for her.
"Seeing my designs on Hellebuyck's helmet for the first time was unbelievable," she said. "It was surreal for me to see my own design be physically made into something more than a thought. I could actually hold it and it was real."
Brienne Santos, a mother of two École Belmont elementary students in the Project 11 program helped her son Max with his design, which ultimately made its way onto the goalie masks. "It's amazing that they're starting this type of program at such a young age."
Brienne is particularly pleased with the problem-solving aspects of the program, noting Max, now in Grade 4, will be well-equipped for his teenage years when life can present bigger problems.
"When I was a kid, we didn't talk about mental health or any of these important life skills and I think it's really empowering for them."
Max said it's fun to learn different ways to get rid of stress but admitted it is tough for him to decide what his absolute favourite thing about the program is.
"I don't know, I just love everything about it."
Project 11 curriculum is currently offered to Grades K-8 but Yanna said she believes a lot of people in high school would benefit from Project 11 because "it can be overwhelming to realize the rest of your life is just around the corner and I know how helpful the program was when I was younger."
Herlinda, also now in high school, agreed that expanding the program into high school would be a huge benefit.
"Project 11 helped me in a time when I knew nothing about truly taking care of my mind," she said, adding that her biggest takeaways from the program were community and coping skills.
"During my three years having Project 11 in my class, I learned that my friends were dealing with the same feelings I had and it made me feel not alone.
While Herlinda misses the class discussions, journaling and body breaks which she found helpful in managing her stress and emotions, she continues to meditate and has observed that the stigma around mental health is slowly fading.
The Winnipeg Jets partnered with the TNYF and Project 11 to promote mental wellness throughout the #HockeyTalks campaign in January, including by sharing their own stories in the hopes that greater awareness means less stigma. Several players, including Hellebuyck and Brossoit, sat down for interviews with Project 11 student ambassadors to share how they stay mentally strong and what strategies they use to combat their stresses.
Both Hellebuyck's and Brossoit's masks will be auctioned off to raise funds to expand Project 11 curriculum into Grades 9-12. The auction will be open from Feb. 2 through 9 at Auctions.NHL.com/WinnipegJets.