John Tavares has had a special place in his heart for intellectually disabled children since he was a teenager.
Now he is using his platform as captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs to give back.
On Monday, Special Olympics Canada will announce a partnership with the John Tavares Foundation aimed at raising awareness and funds for Special Olympics Unified Sports Programs across Canada.
The Special Olympics Unified Sports Programs bring together individuals with and without intellectual disabilities on teams for sports training and competition to promote social engagement and development.
"I've been involved with Special Olympics in the past so I've met countless athletes, countless people with intellectual disabilities," Tavares said. "It's amazing what they bring to our world."
It's a lesson the 30-year-old forward first learned while playing for Oshawa of the Ontario Hockey League from 2005-09. As a student at Henry St. High School in Whitby, Ontario, he already was offering a helping hand.
"When you have a junior hockey team with a rich tradition like Oshawa, the kids really look up to the players," he said. "So when they got a chance to play with me or just to sit down and talk about hockey, they look up to you and you realize that. You're the same age as them, or very close, so you see the impact you can have on them. It was very evident to me not only the joy I could bring to them but how much they brought to me.
"These kids and people are amazing. It was a lot of fun spending time playing ball hockey with them, sharing experiences with them or sharing your lunch break with them. I was very young and probably didn't realize the impact it was making on me, but as I look back, it was awesome. And obviously it means a lot for me to be able to do this again."
One of the children Tavares met during his time in Oshawa has left an impression on him to this day.
"The way they love to show their emotion, their positivity and their love wasn't just handshakes or waves, it was often through hugs," he said. "There was one particular student, his name was Roddy. I'm fortunate to still be in touch with him today. He'd be wearing his [Oshawa] Generals jersey and come up and want to talk about the games on the weekend. And then, before you can even get a word out, he'd be wrapping his arms around you. So just tremendous people, fantastic experiences."
Aryne Tavares, John's wife, agrees.
Like John, she was a student at Henry St. High School and used her spare time to help some of the intellectually disabled children. Tavares said it is where the two met.
"We didn't start dating until many years after high school," he said. "But it's kind of how we first got introduced and got to know each other. It was basically just a lot of us supervising at lunchtime as they ate their lunches and then participating in extracurriculars like ball hockey.
"That was something that we kind of always fall back on because of our experiences through helping these kids."
Special Olympics Canada use the power of sports to help enrich the lives of those with an intellectual disability. More than 41,200 athletes with intellectual disabilities are registered for Special Olympics programs across Canada.
Sharon Bollenbach, Chief Executive Officer of Special Olympics Canada, said the organization is thrilled to partner with the John Tavares Foundation, which was established last year with the goal of helping children reach their full potential.
"We are so aligned on the core values of inclusion and the power of sport to change lives," she said. "We couldn't be more excited for this collaboration."