H.E.R.O.S. program introduces hockey to local youth
As the 2012 Tim Horton's NHL All-Star Game descended on Canada's capital, a collection of prominent people congregated at Ottawa's historic Rideau Hall to welcome a program aimed at aiding area youth. With Canadian Governor General David Johnston serving as host, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, and NHL ambassador Willie O’Ree came together to help launch the latest entry in the Hockey Education Reaching Out Society (H.E.R.O.S.) program.
With 11 programs in seven cities across Canada and with one group operating in Ireland, H.E.R.O.S. has served more than 2,800 boys and girls since its founding in 1999. At the Rideau Hall event, officials honored the program as well as a group of 15 youths selected by the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa to attend the event. Before skating on the Hall’s famous outdoor rink, the kids were also surprised by Melnyk, who presented them with tickets to an upcoming Senators game.
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"When you put the pads on, we want you to feel like a superstar, because you are one. We want you to go to school. Whether you're a doctor or lawyer or a hockey player, you need your education," H.E.R.O.S. founder and executive director Norm Flynn told the children. "We believe in full-circle development for youth. We offer food programs, we offer private tutoring, and, most importantly, we offer scholarship opportunities."
With a 13th program launched in 13 years, H.E.R.O.S. was inspired by the efforts of the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone program. The League initiative, launched in 1998 to offer children of all backgrounds the opportunity to play hockey, has since provided a unique low-cost hockey experience to close to 45,000 boys and girls. Its graduates have gone on to become naval officers, bankers, and executives and, in one unique case, goaltender Gerald Coleman was drafted by the Tampa Bay Lighting in 2003, becoming the first graduate of the program to join the NHL's ranks.
In Canada, H.E.R.O.S. has become an important partner in the League program.
"Norm Flynn is a visionary. He just wants to make sure these boys and girls have an opportunity to get on the ice and display their skills," O'Ree, a hockey pioneer, told NHL.com. "When I played, I was the only black player. Now you can see there are more, not only black players but players of color throughout the League. With more rinks and more kids getting the opportunity to play, you're going to see more players of color and black players in the National Hockey League."
Stories like Coleman's and O’Ree's are inspirational, but H.E.R.O.S. and Hockey is for Everyone were launched with motivations other than replenishing the NHL's talent pool. Their mission first and foremost has always been to provide mentoring through sport to children from various ethnic and social background. That's what made the event in Ottawa so important to the NHL.
"The Hockey is for Everyone program isn't about breaking into the NHL. We stress the importance of central life skills and education and the core values of hockey, which are commitment, perseverance, and teamwork," commissioner Gary Bettman said. "That is why we cherish our partnership with H.E.R.O.S. In collaboration with Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, H.E.R.O.S. will ensure that children of all backgrounds have an opportunity to play our game and we'll be supporting them every step of the way."