Prasanthan Aruchunan doesn't want to be seen as a role model, but an inspiration as well, and is using hockey as way to do both.
When he was 6 years old, Aruchunan, his sister and mother fled from Vavuniya, Sri Lanka, to seek refuge in Canada. Their home country, an island nation off the southern tip of India, was in the midst of a civil war that lasted more than 25 years before ending in May 2009.
His father eventually joined the family in Toronto, and while life is better away from the war, it's not necessarily easier for Aruchunan, now 17.
Aruchunan's mother is unable to work because of a back injury sustained while carrying water from the community well when the family lived in Sri Lanka. His father has to provide financially for the family, which doesn't own a car. The Aruchunans' income is less than 50 percent of the national low-income cutoff for a family of four and will decrease when Prasanthan turns 18 in July.
Despite these limitations, Aruchunan has been able to succeed. He plays hockey, volunteers with the Hockey Education Reaching Out Society (HEROS) and has maintained a 94 percent academic average during his senior year at Westview Centennial Secondary School in Toronto.
For those achievements and more, Aruchunan has been named one of four recipients of the 2016 NHL/Thurgood Marshall College Fund academic scholarship.
"It's a gift and I have to take advantage of it," said Aruchunan, who said he will study engineering at the University of Waterloo (Ontario) in the fall. "I want to show other kids in my community you can be successful, and I want to be a role model for them. I come from a community where money is an issue for almost everyone. I want to inspire kids in the next generation."
Akeem Adesiji (Columbus Ice Hockey Club, Columbus), Katherine Baker (Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club, Washington) and Ava Olsen (Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, Philadelphia) join Aruchunan as this year's recipients of the scholarship, which has been awarded annually by the League to outstanding youth hockey players since 2012. They were chosen by a core group of NHL executives, including Commissioner Gary Bettman.
All four are involved in Hockey Is For Everyone organizations, all of which are dedicated to providing youth of all backgrounds an opportunity to learn essential life skills, play hockey and learn its core values of commitment, perseverance and teamwork.
Aruchunan got a taste for hockey when he was in third grade and started playing competitive hockey when he was 12. He said interested students at Driftwood Public School would be divided up into teams, named after those in the NHL, and play against each other for fun.
He was on the Carolina Hurricanes. His sister, Prasanthy, was on the Colorado Avalanche.
"It was a little rivalry," Aruchunan said. "We eventually bought hockey sticks from a store nearby and would play at home."
Aruchunan got involved with HEROS when he was in sixth grade. The organization was founded in Vancouver in 2000, but has grown to include eight chapters across Canada. It uses ice hockey to teach life skills and empower at-risk youth. Aruchunan mentors younger players, helps them strap on equipment or tie skates and teaches them hockey techniques and skills.
Tony Wray, program coordinator of HEROS Jane & Finch program in Toronto, has known Prasanthan since he became involved in the program in 2010.
"He's the whole package," Wray said. "He has the work ethic, he's very easy to get along with, he's reliable, he has the communication skills. I think he also understands the humble background he's come from."
Aruchunan said he wants to continue playing some form of hockey in college, either ice or floor. He said his favorite team is the Pittsburgh Penguins and his favorite player is Sidney Crosby.
Pittsburgh clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, has a seven-game winning streak and is 13-1-0 in its past 14 games. Can they win the Cup?
"Definitely," Aruchunan said. "The past two months … unbelievable."