Video: COMMUNITY | Right to Play
Skating, a skills competition and a surprise meet-and-greet.
That is what unfolded at Rogers Place for 16 children participating in the Right To Play program from Alexander First Nation on Saturday.
From learning to skate on the Downtown Community Rink to watching the Edmonton Oilers show off their talents in their annual skills competition, their day was truly made when they filed into the Oilers Hall of Fame Room for a surprise meet-and-greet with Oilers defenceman and Right To Play Ambassador Darnell Nurse.
"That was really special," said Emily Gibson, Program Manager for Right To Play.
"The whole [competition] they were repping his T-Shirts and cheering extra loud for his team."
Reaching more than one million children through weekly sport and play activities, Right To Play is supported by an international network of professional and Olympic athletes from more than 40 countries.
Through sports and games, Right To Play helps children build essential life skills and better futures while driving social change in their communities with lasting impact.
"We work with 1,000,000 kids on a weekly basis," said Scott Sandison, Director, Community Engagement at Right To Play.
"We also operate in over 85 First Nations Indigenous bands in Canada. Our work is predominantly overseas, but with the number of Indigenous communities that we're working within Canada, it's very heavily local as well. We have a good balance between the two."
These Athlete Ambassadors work to help inspire kids in the program and share their message about what play has done for them, how they've overcome obstacles and how children in the program can also do the same and achieve great things whether that's in sport, but more importantly in life.
Active in 88 First Nations communities across Ontario, Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, the Promoting Life-skills in Aboriginal Youth (PLAY) program uses sport and play as tools to empower indigenous youth as leaders in their communities.
"PLAY is a huge thing," said Nurse.
"I think one of the things that we miss, especially these days, is your ability to educate kids based on play and the things that you learn based on playing games. I think [some of] my problems were solved with a scoreboard playing sports. It's funny how sports can bring together communities, can bring together people and also educate them all at the same time."
A Right To Play Athlete Ambassador since 2016, Nurse hosted a hockey clinic for youth from the Alexander First Nation at Servus Credit Union Place in St. Albert that first year, displaying how hockey could be used as a tool to help develop essential life skills by leading various drills and providing mentorship to the youth.
"They came down to the local community rink for the day and he took them through a bunch of drills and played some light games with them and shared some of his experiences both on and off the ice," said Sandison.
"He was able to explain how sport and play made an impact in his life, and they did a little bit of talk on goal setting, which was fantastic."
This year, the Oilers blueliner will be involved with a month-long objective where for every minute he's played during the month of February, he will donate $10 to the not for profit organization, befitting the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative.
"It's pretty exciting," said Scott Sandison. "For as little as $10, it provides an afternoon of learning and play for a child."
In partnership with Right To Play, the Alexander First Nation group was eager to see the Oilers blueliner, who took some time to sign autographs and pose for photos among all of the excitement.
"I think Darnell is a really good embodiment of Right To Play's values of being really inclusive, wanting to showcase how play is for everyone and just being a really great role model for the kids," said Gibson.
"When you get to come in and see smiles and a bunch of hugs at the end of it, it makes it that much more special," said Nurse.
"Just being a part of Right To Play, seeing the changes that they make in communities that need a lot of help and with children that find an avenue to really express themselves through play and to educate themselves. It was a great opportunity for me two years ago and I'm happy I'm able to do it still."