The finalists are Debbie Bland of Etobicoke, Ontario, co-founder/builder of the Etobicoke Dolphins Girls Hockey League; Neal Henderson of Washington, founder of the Fort Dupont Hockey Club; and Darcy Haugan, the late coach of the Humboldt Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
The award, presented to the person who best utilizes hockey as a platform for participants to build character and develop important life skills for a more positive family experience, will be presented at the 2018 NHL Awards presented by Hulu at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas on June 20.
"I believe we are three individuals within ourselves," said O'Ree, who became the first black player to compete in the NHL in 1958. "We're a person who we think we are, we're a person who other people think we are and we're a person who we really are. And to find that real person within yourself and staying focused on what you want to do, that's a big factor."
Fans can vote for the winner by visiting nhl.com/oreeaward .
Here's a closer look at the three finalists:
Video: Willie O'Ree on his Community Hero Award
Co-founder/builder, Etobicoke Dolphins Girls Hockey League
Bland coaches teams of women in their 30s, ones off to college and 9-year-olds, and her contributions to the youth of Etobicoke for the past 25 years are ongoing. She has led and assisted hundreds of girls and young women to develop their confidence to not only excel in hockey, but be included in the sport and develop a passion for the game and their community.
"I see it as something that's given so much back to me," Bland said. "Having this ability to bring women's hockey forward is amazing. I'm getting a lot of the kids that we've coached, both in that 30-year-old range as well as the kids of university age, giving back to the program themselves. It's so phenomenal to see everything that they've gotten from the development of hockey and how they still want to be a part of making it grow in our community as well."
The community in turn is giving back to Bland in the face of tragedy. Her 9-year-old granddaughter Abbey Tran, who played hockey since the age of 3 and was an Atom BB Dolphin, died of a rare blood disorder, hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH). The response from Etobicoke is one reason why Bland is continuing her commitment to the greater good.
"It was like our hockey community just put a giant hug around us, helped us to get through it," Bland said. "So it was a feeling of being part of something bigger. It's something that we've done for all the joy and watching the kids grow and so forth. In our time of great need they came back for us and for me.
"[Abbey] had that true spirit of the game. That's part of the reason why I'm so honored to be nominated for this award. She embodied everything of what we're trying to accomplish in our community. And our community in turn responded in that same way through her illness."
Bland's recent work with one of her 9-year-old players helped summarize her impact on those younger and older. The player was having challenges facing the pressures of hockey and life before a big game, so Bland discreetly pulled her aside and poured her last few drops of coffee down a drain to demonstrate how life's worries can be controlled and how to let go.
"It was an easy way to try to show the kids that all kinds of things come at them," Bland said. "You can wash it away and then you have the strength of your teammates that are behind you, who will stand you back up again and face it anew.
"It was a particularly challenging moment with a young child … I had a coffee in my hand, poured it on the ground, turned the shower on, washed the coffee down the drain and I'm like, 'That's it. The words are gone and now we have your whole team out there ready to wrap you up. You know the truth about who you are.'"
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Founder of Fort Dupont Hockey Club
Henderson's journey has helped epitomize O'Ree's enduring legacy along with the spirit of inclusiveness and diversity in hockey.
In 1978, against the advice of naysayers, Henderson created a community ice hockey program in inner-city Washington. Forty years later, the Fort Dupont Hockey Club (FDHC) is the oldest minority ice hockey program in North America, recognized for its efforts to break down barriers and spread the game within communities of color.
"A lot of people were saying I couldn't do it, I shouldn't do it and have no reason to do it," Henderson said. "I guess I just kept going because the kids kept coming. That's one of the things that's kept me going, to see the kids coming.
FDHC has blossomed into a program that uplifts, inspires and instills core values that go beyond the sport: respect, leadership, hard work, discipline, perseverance and teamwork. As a result, 100 percent of the club's participants graduate high school and go on to post-secondary education.
"You can overcome everything with a good, strong mind," Henderson said. "Education is the key."
To all who know Henderson, 80, he is a father figure whose efforts are dedicated to promote diversity and inclusion in hockey. He continues to be a mentor and role model in the Washington community, and hockey has been made better because of his determination to prove the game truly is for everyone.
"I tell them hockey is a tool, a life tool," Henderson said. "It teaches you how to get along with people of different colors and different times. It teaches you how to respect each other. It gives you a leading edge on how to maneuver through and around situations that may be difficult for you. It teaches you how to expand your horizons by just being in and around people who are willing to give you a helping hand.
"I enjoy working with the kids and have fun doing it, and they enjoy being around me. I have a happy medium teaching them to play hockey and watching them grow and bringing their children back to me."
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Humboldt Broncos coach
Haugan, 42, was one of 16 people who died in a bus accident while the Broncos of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League were traveling to a playoff game in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, on April 6. He left a lasting impact on Humboldt and junior hockey, always being there for his players and never hesitating to give them a second chance.
There are many reasons why Haugan is a finalist. He was a unique coach at an elite hockey program not entirely focused on wins and losses, but helping his boys become better people.
"He always called it the journey," said Russell Sharp, an assistant under Haugan for North Peace of the North West Junior Hockey League before Haugan coached Humboldt. "It wasn't so much about winning championships. It was developing players into men to go out into the community, to conduct themselves in a positive manner."
Haugan also wanted his players to give back to the community. In 2015, he earned Hockey Alberta's prestigious Meritorious Award for his contributions to hockey. He strongly believed the sport is not about making hockey players, but amazing human beings. He was a frequent attendee at fundraisers, minor hockey clinics, spoke with community leaders and schools about family, integrity and respect, and a big believer in church who spoke to his sons Carson, 12, and Jackson, 9, about devotion every night.
The award helps shine a light on the anonymous and uplifting stories of community, making it strong by using hockey as platform. He did that by building young leaders and died doing what he loved, surrounded by the young people to whom he dedicated his life. That connection stemmed from his faith and helped all those he touched with his spirit and passion for the game, and dedication to his community.
"The people that didn't get to meet Darcy and be involved with him, it's a loss," Sharp said. "It's a loss to the hockey world, not just Humboldt but the hockey community as a whole and just one of the nicest people you'd every meet who gave everything he had to hockey and develop kids. That was Darcy. That was his job. His legacy is just being involved in hockey and showing how great of a man he was.
"He believed in people. If you could be a better person by the time Darcy was done with you, that's where he got his gratification, from seeing how you could develop from a boy into a man. That was his legacy, contributing to people in a positive way."
Vote for Haugan