Kevin Hodgson never actually signed up for any of this. Fifteen years ago, the executive director of HEROS (Hockey Education Reaching Out Society), which empowers at-risk youth, and its offshoot organization SuperHEROS, which provides boys and girls living with physical and cognitive challenges an inclusive and safe hockey environment, didn't know much about the programs he would eventually run.
A friend heard that HEROS was coming to Calgary, where Hodgson lives, and offered his name as a volunteer. It became his life.
On Wednesday, Hodgson became the fourth recipient of the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award presented by MassMutual. The award honors Willie O'Ree, who became the first Black player to play in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958, has spent more than two decades as the NHL's diversity ambassador and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018.
"I didn't know that her doing that that day was going to completely alter my path," said Hodgson, who became the executive director in 2012. "From Day One, I could just see that something special could happen there. You're watching kids do something that they never thought they were going to be able to do.
"Give them a chance to try something they never thought they'd be able to try, then they start to believe that anything's possible."
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Along with Hodgson, the other finalists were Renee Hess, the founder of Black Girl Hockey Club, a nonprofit organization that aims to inspire and sustain passion for hockey within the Black community, particularly among women; and Howard Smith, the co-founder with Cliff Benson of Pittsburgh I.C.E. (Inclusion Creates Equality), a Hockey is for Everyone program that aims to offer children of all socioeconomic backgrounds the chance to learn and play hockey.
As the winner, Hodgson will get $25,000 for the charity of his choice; the other finalists will get $5,000.
"We applaud all of the nominees and finalists for being inspiring role models and for their contributions to positively impacting their communities through the sport of hockey," said Jennifer Halloran, head of brand and marketing for MassMutual. "This wonderful honor shines a light on character traits that so many aspire to behold, and Kevin is very deserving for his work in leveraging the sport to build inclusivity, self-esteem and life skills for children of all abilities."
With two full-time staffers -- Hodgson works from his kitchen table -- and 300 volunteers, the organization has grown to 28 programs in 12 cities across Canada, with three more programs coming as the coronavirus pandemic subsides. One in three participants are girls, and almost half the participants are new Canadians; about 10,000 kids have participated in the program since 2000.
"My dream job found me, and I haven't looked back since then," he said. "It's that cliche that if you find your passion, it doesn't feel like work. That's what this has turned into. I really feel like it's a calling and a passion and it's a responsibility too, to be honest with you."
Hodgson said he rejoices in being able to help break down the barriers that kids have to hockey, whether financial, cultural or social. And it means even more that the award is named after O'Ree.
"I really view our program and I view all the work that everybody's doing as a legacy to Willie," Hodgson said. "He is such a game-changer and he is such a trailblazer, and I think we all have a responsibility to carry on that that work for him."
But even with all that Hodgson and HEROS and SuperHEROS have done, the validation and recognition this award gives him have only increased Hodgson's desire to help. He said he was planning on spending a little time celebrating and then, in the morning, it's back to work.
"When I found out I was a finalist, I said to Willie, if HEROS is fortunate enough to win this award, we're not viewing this as a recognition of what we've accomplished. We're viewing it as a commitment to do even more," Hodgson said. "It is an invitation for us to do even more and it's one that we're happy to take on, just to make sure that hockey can be what it needs to be for more kids.
"We've built the foundation. Now it's time to start building the high-rise. Let's keep going."