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Hockey Heroes scores 20 years of support for at-risk youth in North Van

Run by Hollyburn Community Services Society, the intiative provides gear and a supportive community in exchange for attending class

For some kids, their hockey hero is Sydney Crosby. For others, it’s Connor Bedard.

But for a group of North Vancouver youth, their beacon of hope on the ice isn’t a person at all. It’s a program.

Over the past 20 years, Hollyburn Hockey Heroes has been giving at-risk youth a shot at playing the great Canadian game in a supportive environment where the usual high-cost barriers have been removed.

After signing up for the program, teens aged 14 to 19 play hockey once a week through the school year, while committing to attending class. On the ice, the youth players are joined by mentors including school teachers, administrative staff, police, firefighters and social workers.

One of the biggest benefits of the initiative is that the kids are given gear that they get to keep after graduation, allowing them to continue playing in adult leagues.

At an exhibition match on March 6 at North Vancouver's Canlan Sports arena, the Hockey Heroes faced off against players from VanMar Construction, which had just announced a multi-year sponsorship of the program.

Suited up in full gear on the Hockey Heroes team was program founder Steve Kirkby, manager of youth services at Hollyburn Community Services Society, which runs the initiative.

After working with young offenders as a corrections officer in Ontario for 15 years, Kirkby said the program was born out of a desire to engage youth who might otherwise lack support structures. To sign up, prior knowledge of hockey isn’t expected, but attendance at school is, he added.

“What the teachers have shared is that the numbers have gone up significantly, because the kids want to come here, they have an attachment with the program,” he said. “They get their own jersey, and they feel part of a community. And that’s important for all ages.”

Most of the kids come from Mountainside Secondary, an alternative high school in North Van's Upper Lonsdale neighbourhood. Others come from Carson Graham Secondary.

'I’ve been so lucky to be introduced to hockey'

Kirkby emphasizes the importance of having a welcoming community.

“They’ll support that youth who maybe doesn’t have a lot of experience, and celebrate any success that they have. And inevitably, before long, they’re the one that is flying around out here looking amazing,” he said.

Even more than the hockey skills, Kirkby said what’s most rewarding is when he hears back from program graduates who have gone on to finish university or start a career.

“Hockey is just an instrument for teaching them other things in life that go well beyond playing on the ice,” he said.

As players chased, passed and shot the puck at Canlan, their teammates cheered and drummed hockey sticks against the boards in support.

Mountainside Grade 12 student J.C. said his first chance to play hockey was when he signed up with the Heroes program two years ago.

“I’ve been so lucky to be introduced to hockey,” he said. “I watched it when I was growing up but never had a chance to play. So this is probably the best experience with hockey I’ve ever had.”

J.C., who plans on going to BCIT or another local university next year, said he’ll stay with the team for as long as Kirkby lets him.

“He’s a good coach,” J.C. said. “And I just think he’s the best fit for this whole program.”