As Canadians, there are many things that unite us coast to coast. The game of hockey is one of them. Whether you play it, watch it, or live for it, hockey keeps us warm on those bitter-cold winter nights, and for the past two decades, hockey has been helping the homeless.
"In Canada hockey is the game and anytime you can lace up your skates and head out on the rink with two guys who played in the NHL, whether it be our alumni or others for charity, it's a winning combo," said Ron Low, Oilers Alumni and Honorary Chair for Hockey Helps the Homeless.
Every year Oilers and NHL alumni team up with recreational athletes on the ice to face off for bragging rights, and more importantly, to raise funds for Hockey Helps the Homeless - a charity that sees net proceeds donated locally and split between the Mustard Seed and Jasper Place Wellness Centre. This year the event raised $230,000 - a record since its inception in Edmonton in 2014 and $55,000 more than last year.
"Each year we assign the funds to a different program," explained Murray Soroka, CEO of the Jasper Place Wellness Centre. "Last year we assigned the money to build permanent housing for the homeless, that's our Glenwood project, and this year we're going to put most of those funds towards our community health centre."
"Edmonton is a hockey town and Edmontonians always step up and want to get involved and help whenever they can and we love being part of that," explained Linda Low, Honorary Chair. "Given the [poor] economy we were surprised how people just stepped up this year, it was our best year!"
Ron and Linda helped bring the event to the capital city and has seen it grow year-over-year; nearly $800,000 in total has been raised for Edmonton's most vulnerable population.
"So much of our success is reliant on our committees locally and our volunteers and alumni that are in the communities," said Ryan Baillie, Hockey Helps the Homeless Executive Director. "It's not always the Oilers that say are the best-known, or on the Stanley Cup winning teams or in the Hall of Fame, sometimes it's the guy who played 150 games, but you remember fondly for whatever reason. I think we do a really great job bringing in a variety of players from various different backgrounds and teams but it's a key selling feature for our event."
"The people who sit in the dressing rooms with these guys are blown away by them and everybody in the room listens to stories being told and maybe even live their NHL dreams just by listening," added Ron.
Hockey Helps the Homeless is a volunteer-driven event. It started spontaneously in Toronto in 1996 and now there are 16 events across the country. Nearly $15 million has been raised nationally to date.
"A group of businessmen had a few hours of ice at Maple Leaf Gardens that they had to decide what to do with, so they put on a little charity hockey tournament," explained Baillie. "They raised $8,000 and chose homelessness as their cause, so they created survival kits and passed them out to homeless folks [in] downtown Toronto."
Homelessness is a problem that spans across Canada. More than 30,000 men, women and children across the nation are without a home on any given night and 235 Canadians will experience homeless every year. In Edmonton, the last count in spring 2018 was around 1,500 people, a number that has drastically declined from over a decade ago.
"We're making strides towards ending homelessness. Fifteen years ago, the count was around 3,500 people," added Soroka. "I think Edmonton is a national leader through its Housing First Program and events like Hockey Helps the Homeless - I can't think of a better combo of how to have fun and how to do some really great things for our city."
Hockey Helps the Homeless will be back for another year spring 2020. For more information, visit HockeyHelpstheHomeless.com.