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Why Hockey Helps the Homeless is personal for Natalie Miller

Hockey Helps the Homeless Vancouver to host fundraising tournament on November 24 at UBC.
Hockey Helps the Homeless Vancouver will be hosting a hockey tournament on November 24 to raise money to help end homelessness.

The issue of homelessness in Vancouver and across Canada can seem overwhelming. There are so many structural and systemic issues that underlie homelessness that it can sometimes seem like there’s nothing an individual person can do to help.

That’s where Hockey Helps the Homeless steps in, providing a way for people to help . Founded in 1996, the organization hosts hockey tournaments across Canada where amateurs can play with former professional and Olympic players, with all of the proceeds benefiting local charities.

The need is particularly felt in Vancouver, where the rise in homelessness has been impossible to ignore. 

“Population is growing, inflation is growing, people can’t afford rent in our city, and there's more and more homeless every day,” said Ewan French, who brought Hockey Helps the Homeless to Vancouver 15 years ago. “I see it in my neighbourhood out in Dunbar, people sleeping in cars and vans — it’s unbelievable.”

Vancouver will host their Hockey Helps the Homeless tournament on November 24 at UBC’s Thunderbird Arena, with a stated goal of raising $650,000, though they’ve bested that goal in each of the last two years. That money is disseminated through 13 different outreach partners.

“We’re a bit of an anomaly for Hockey Helps the Homeless. All the other cities in Canada have 1-4 outreach partners. We’ve always had a bit of a bigger footprint,” said French. “Historically, it’s been all Vancouver, but we’ve seen a rapid increase of homeless issues out in the Fraser Valley, so a lot of our outreach partners here in the city also have buildings and services out in the valley.”

The tournament will feature 18 teams, each matched with a former professional or Olympic player, including former Canucks Dave Babych, Geoff Courtnall, Jannik Hansen, Denis Pederson, Doug Bodger, and Rich Sutter. Players pay a registration fee that covers the costs of the tournament and are also required to fundraise a minimum amount in order to participate.

Natalie Miller stepped up to sponsor recovery team

This year, one of the teams at the tournament will be a recovery team — a team of hockey players who have gone through recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Natalie Miller, the wife of the Canucks’ J.T. Miller, is sponsoring the team.

“This recovery team is a group of guys pretty new in recovery from the New West recovery community,” said Miller. “They got into a hockey league last January and found a sense of community within each other, their sobriety, and the sport of hockey.”

Miller is on the committee for Hockey Helps the Homeless, joining the organization four years ago after she and J.T. came to Vancouver. She volunteered at one tournament and immediately caught the vision.

“Living in Vancouver for such a short time, I noticed the need for support of the homeless community,” said Miller. “The money is put towards places that help people get off the streets and get back into society, sober. I love this city and everything it has to offer, I just want everyone else to have the opportunity to experience that as well.”

A fellow committee member, Linda Lane Devlin, brought up that there was a team of players who had gone through recovery, many of whom had benefited from funds raised by Hockey Helps the Homeless, who wanted to participate in the tournament but would struggle to raise the necessary funds. As soon as she heard about this need, Miller immediately stepped up to help.

For Miller, there was a personal reason for why the recovery team connected to her.

“Growing up with a mother who struggled with alcohol addiction and, at a young age, watching her go to rehab and go through the process of getting to the other side, I know what it means to these guys and I know how hard they are working to choose that new lifestyle,” said Miller. “I want them to be celebrated and encouraged and feel supported for how far they have come.”

“I know my mom would be really proud,” she added.

The Millers also sponsor the post-tournament dinner at Marine Drive Golf Club and J.T. helps with the annual auction which helps raise further funds for the charity.

“J.T. is as involved as he can be during the season!” said Miller. “He does a great job by helping me collect all the auction item baskets from the players and any other miscellaneous items we can snag from the Canucks organization as well. He’s always been really supportive of me on any charity that we are involved in and we collectively agree as a family what’s important to us and where we would like to make a difference in this community.”

Along with Miller's sponsorship of the recovery team, Mario Vetro, co-founder of Vancouver-based K92 Mining and the top fundraiser for last year's tournament, will be covering any fundraising shortfalls for the players.

Funds raised go directly to local charities

Organizations pitch their proposals to the Hockey Helps the Homeless committee for how their funds will be used to help people. Those funds have been used for everything from funding for recovery in shelters to mental health nursing to building beehives with Hives for Humanity. 

“We make sure that the money we’re investing in our community is actually going to frontline services,” said French.

Those outreach partners also send volunteers to the tournament, who help host the event and keep things running smoothly, but also talk to each team about their organization, letting the participants know just how their fundraising will impact the community. In addition, Academy Award-winning filmmaker David Fine, who is also on the Hockey Helps the Homeless Vancouver committee, makes a movie each year showing firsthand how the funds raised help people. 

“It’s pretty moving and it’s interesting to see the reaction of the guys in the room,” said French. “Some of them, it’s really their only exposure to the Downtown Eastside, in terms of the misery and chaos that is prevalent down there and how we provide a little bit of a ray of hope through our outreach partners. The talks that they give, they really resonate and you can see it in the faces of the players.”

In addition, some of the professional and Olympic players who come to the tournament have stories of their own.

“We play hockey with them all day and you’re in the dressing room with them for, like, six hours,” said French. “It’s amazing some of the stories they share. They’ll have family members who’ve gone through the same thing or they’ll talk about ex-hockey players who played pro who have gone through substance abuse or being homeless. So, they know it too.”

HHtH Vancouver has grown rapidly

It’s been a long journey growing Hockey Helps the Homeless Vancouver from its modest beginnings in 2008.

“We started with six teams — we couldn’t even fill all of them,” said French. “But right from day one, we were able to get some Canucks alumni involved: Gino Odjick, Cliff Ronning, Doug Bodger and others. We raised only $65,000 that year, so it was not much, but for us, we felt pretty proud.”

The tournament doubled in size the next year, then grew incrementally year by year until truly taking off in the last four or five years. 

“We’ve been pretty steady at making between $650,000 and $850,000,” said French. “It’s grown quite quickly, in our minds.”

For French, it’s a perfect marriage between his passion for helping people and his passion for hockey. He grew up playing hockey in Montreal and dreaming of playing in the NHL, though those dreams soon had to face reality.

“I played against Mario Lemieux in Bantam,” said French with a grin. “His team was pretty phenomenal — they had, like, four NHLers on their team, like Marc Bergevin, Sylvain Lefebvre, and Tommy Kane, who played in the NFL. We lost by a lot every game.”

But every game on November 24, whatever the score, will feel like a win, as it will represent funds going to where they’re needed and waking people up to the bigger needs in their community. 

“Most people get involved just because it’s a hockey tournament and they get to play with some NHLers and pros,” said French. “It’s after that we tie them into the good that we’re doing… A lot of people live in their insulated worlds, but there is a bigger, wider community that needs our help.”

“That’s why it works,” he added. “Hockey is the gateway in.”

While registration for the November 24 tournament has closed, people can get involved by donating or volunteering . French said that it typically takes 90 volunteers to run the event at UBC. 

Here is the current confirmed list of former professional and Olympic hockey players participating in the tournament in Vancouver:

  • Dave Babych
  • Brian Skrudland
  • Phil von Stefenelli
  • Geoff Courtnall
  • PJ Stock 
  • David Jones
  • Jannik Hansen
  • Sami Jo Small
  • Becky Kellar
  • Colleen Sostorics
  • Kenndal McArdle
  • John Craighead
  • Doug Bodger
  • Jim Vandermeer
  • Sean Crowther
  • Denis Pederson
  • Brent Hughes
  • Andy Willigar
  • Matt Keith
  • Terry Bingley
  • Rich Sutter