How the O’Ree Award-winning HEROS program is changing hockey culture

Kevin Hodgson on the ice with HEROS. (Courtesy of HEROS)

There are many areas where hockey’s lack of diversity and limited social consciousness has held it back. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t lesser-known figures making huge strides towards inclusion in the sport. Case in point, Calgary’s Kevin Hodgson and the HEROS program (Hockey Education Reaching Out Society).

Since 2000, when it ran its first summer camp in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, this volunteer-run non-profit has seen upwards of 10,000 children take part in its programming. What’s even more remarkable is that none of those kids or their parents paid a cent, the entire program is free — quite the investment considering children often join the program around age 10 and are welcome to stay until they graduate high school.

Hodgson, HEROS’ executive director, has played and coached hockey, but it’s his background in social work that he accesses most often running the program, which currently operates in 12 Canadian cities and supports 850 kids. In social work, Hodgson did a bit of everything, from front-line work to management positions in group care programs, foster care programs, treatment programs — you name it.

“By the time I came to work for HEROS, all I was really doing was managing staff and processes and dollars,” he says. “Social work changes people’s lives, but it’s a very slow-moving machine. It was getting frustrating because it was taking so long to affect any sort of change and to be responsive to changing community needs…. I’m way better where I could be out there on skates learning from kids what they need and then making policy decisions at the top end based on what the kids tell us.”


The demo HEROS attracts is a diverse one. Seventy percent of the program’s current participants are BIPOC, half are new Canadians and a third are girls. The organization also runs a program for children with special needs called SuperHEROS.

As much as Hodgson is trying to teach the kids skills for both hockey and life, he finds he’s often the one learning. He remembers a recent conversation he witnessed between some of the kids he found particularly moving: “One of our players, he’s indigenous and he had a long braid and he used to always tuck it into his shoulder pads [to hide it]. He and I talked about it, but that’s what he was comfortable doing,” Hodgson says. “And then a couple of his teammates, who are also from different diverse backgrounds, asked him about his braid and he just started talking about the significance of the braid to his culture. The kids were interested, they were learning, and by the end of it, they said, ‘Well, you shouldn’t tuck it into your shoulder pads. You should be proud of it and wear it outside your equipment.’

“The kid never tucked his braid in his shoulder pads since then,” Hodgson continues. “We’ve seen too much evidence that kids can get it right. We have to create the environment to allow them to get it right.”

Courtesy of HEROS

When the program expands to a new city, the first order of business is talking to local social workers and school boards to identify areas with the greatest need. Inclusion and accessibility are fundamental principles.

“I think we sort of romanticize this notion of, if a kid really wants it, he should ride the bus from Jane and Finch with his gear to downtown Toronto to practice. Those are all just major barriers that look like brick walls for kids,” Hodgson says.

Picking the kids up after school and taking them to the rink, feeding them, driving them home afterward — HEROS is designed to tear down those walls and make kids feel welcome.

“I’m keenly aware that my only barrier to playing hockey and having success in hockey was a lack of talent and a lack of work ethic,” Hodgson acknowledges. “And we understand at a very genuine level that many of our players have been told that they don’t belong in the game — all of them have been made to feel like they don’t.”

One of the kids helped by both the sport and the mentorship opportunity HEROS provides is Juma Amisi, who has gone from a Tanzanian refugee camp to the cusp of law school, thanks in part to his experience in the program.

When Amisi’s aunt Rosette Lillehei was granted refugee status in the spring of 2005, she was allowed to bring him and his sister. Amisi left behind friends and family, including his mom, Amisa Clementine, who is still in Tanzania and who he hasn’t seen since he was 10-years-old.

A former soccer player, the now 22-year-old Amisi excelled when HEROS introduced him to hockey, and played up to AAA with help from the program. Playing on a travel team created new challenges, but HEROS remained a safety net.

“They actually paid for me to go play club hockey, which is a huge investment,” Amisi says. “Everything they said, they backed up…. I just realized how much these people care.”

Later transitioning from hockey to rugby, Amisi represented Team Canada with the national U18 rugby sevens program. Now with his sole focus on his studies, he’s already been accepted to two law schools. He wants to be a sports agent and to help fellow refugees, and has dreams of starting a program similar to HEROS for African refugees.

“Programs like this actually can change the trajectory of a person’s life because everyone has the opportunity to be in sport and participate in sport,” Amisi says.

Raven Smith-Grange, a first generation Canadian of Jamaican descent, also had her career path impacted by HEROS. First introduced to the program because her middle school was affiliated with it, she joined as a free way to learn how to skate. “What I loved about the program was that it was more like a family, and it was a big community rallying around you and supporting you and a group of wonderful people doing something for their community and giving kids a chance to have hockey, come in and skate and do things that they never thought possible” Smith-Grange recalls.

The 23-year-old graduated from the HEROS program in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood she grew up in. Naturally quiet and introverted, she found her voice and confidence in the program. Her experience was so positive she went on to volunteer with HEROS. Her siblings followed her footsteps and participated and volunteered as well.

“When you join the program, you’re in it almost forever in a way,” Smith-Grange says.

And it’s true that she’s still connected. Smith-Grange graduated with a Bachelor of Journalism in 2020. She went on to be the first HEROS grad the organization has hired, and she now pens their monthly stakeholder and donor newsletter plus online copy.

Courtesy of HEROS

HEROS’ impact is felt by parents as well. Jason LaBarbera is a former NHL goalie, and now a goalie coach for the Calgary Flames. He spent time with the Calgary Hitmen and that’s when he first met Hodgson, who billeted some of the players on the team. He’s not from the prototypical family the HEROS program was designed for, but he is exactly who the SuperHEROS program was built for.

LaBarbera’s son, Ryder, has autism. As soon as LaBarbera heard about the program, the entire family was on board.

“[Ryder’s] been dragged around arenas his whole life, whether for me or his brother, and he’s had to sit there and watch,” LaBarbera says. “Anybody that knows people with autism, it’s really hard for them to sit still and pay attention and behave over that period of time. So, for him to have his own hockey, where we all had to sit there and watch him skate and watch him play was great.”

Having seen the impact firsthand, the former NHLer is also using his platform to speak on the importance of programs like HEROS.

“For parents that have kids with autism, you don’t know what’s available, you don’t know what’s out there because it’s easy just to let them go on their iPads. But to have access to things like SuperHEROS, where they can be athletic, they get to go do something that they get to see on TV,” LaBarbera explains.

He’s also seen the impact of volunteers like Hogdson, who he sees as the lifeblood of the hockey community. “There’s varying levels of disabilities and there’s varying levels of what the kids are able to do on the ice. But the one thing that is very common is they all have smiles on their faces. When they show up to see their jersey in their stall, little nuances like that that Kevin thinks about, you need that sort of stuff in our world. To have someone like Kevin that organizes it, you can’t put a price on those kinds of things.”

The HEROS culture stems from Hodgson himself, according to Smith-Grange: “He’s very enthusiastic about what he does. And also, it’s very infectious,” she says.

Programs like HEROS alone can’t change what the pipeline to the upper echelon of the sport looks like. But they can change who benefits from the cascading impact the sport can have on young lives. Individuals like Kevin Hodgson are providing allyship wrapped in volunteerism and hockey coaching.

Many are taking notice of his good work.

Last night, Hodgson was announced by the NHL as this year’s winner of the Willie O’Ree award. Chosen by public vote, the winner receives $25,000 for a charity of their choice.

“To even be nominated for an award with [O’Ree’s] name on it, I still haven’t really been able to comprehend just what that means,” Hodgson says. “Everything we get to do is because of the garbage that Willie went through and the boulder that Willie was willing to push up the hill.”

It’s no coincidence Hodgson is fuelled by O’Ree’s own advice.

“Willie, in his Hall of Fame induction speech, challenged the audience to find a kid who doesn’t have access to the game and give it to them because they might make history. Our kids are making their own history. They’re charting a new path for themselves because of the game.”

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