Sunday, 17 July 2016

A Camp Built On Hope

I'm not sure anyone knows what it feels like to lead the NHL in goals in a season except for a select few people on the planet. It's a very exclusive club, so it's hard to imagine that Jonathan Cheechoo is a world away as he plays in the KHL. Jumping to the KHL might somewhat be like leaving his family in Moose Factory, Ontario to join the Belleville Bulls when he was a teenager, but the isolation in both cases is real. Earlier this week, though, Doug and Jordan Cheechoo, Jonathan's uncle and brother, set up a camp that was only for Aboriginal youth as they try to follow their hockey dreams!

The Hockey Camp of Hope opened this week in Sudbury, Ontario to a number of Aboriginal youth hockey players in an attempt for them to better their games while addressing some of the challenges that Aboriginal youth face in their quest to become a professional hockey player at the NHL or minor-pro levels. The Hockey Camp of Hope is run by Doug Cheechoo and his team of coaches who strive to even the playing field both on the ice and off it for Aboriginal youth.

"We get the opportunity when we have all aboriginal kids to talk about the issues they will face," Doug Cheechoo told Bruce Heidman of the Sudbury Star.

"With most teams, they will be the minority, if not the only Aboriginal, and that presents challenges to the individuals. All the coaches at the camp have gone through it whether it is racism or whatever, and not just from fans but from their own team sometime, and that's why we have them all in one classroom and talk about the challenges, talk about living away from home for the first time ad how to deal with homesickness. For the Aboriginal student who is already a minority, it is a different experience all together. The social and living conditions are so much different, it is a bigger adjustment for an Aboriginal person."

This is a topic that Doug knows well having seen Jonathan leave home for Belleville before being drafted in the second round of the NHL Entry Draft by the San Jose Sharks. While there were some Aboriginal role models that Jonathan could certainly look up to while getting into the league, finding his place in any of the leagues he starred in as one of a handful of Aboriginal players can be difficult.

"They are kids are from isolated reserves, they move away and have to try to make new friends, and aboriginal people are shy as it is and it takes a couple of weeks at least to get adjusted," Jordan Cheechoo told Heidman.

"I know my first training camp in Sudbury, I was shy and didn't do what I was able to do and got cut from that team, so I just want to tell them to be outgoing from the start. When you are a minority on a team it is tough, so we want to help them."

For every Johnny Bucyk and Jordin Tootoo that makes it to the NHL, there are many more who do not. Camps like the Hockey Camp of Hope, though, allow Aboriginal youth the opportunity to train under NHL and AHL talent so that they have an appreciation for the hard work needed to get their careers to the next level. Instructors at the camp include Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Todd Nelson, Bakersfield Condors assistant coach Tony Borgford, and Winnipeg Jets scouting coordinator Barett Leganchuk.

"We’re working with players that will be prospects down the road, possibly major junior, and we are preparing them for that next level and let them know what they will face down the road," Leganchuk told Heidman.

"We teach them and tell them what scouts will be looking for from them down the road and how in-depth scouts look into them and what their personalities are, and we want to help them learn that different types of players make it and you can find a role at the next level. We aim at tackling the on- and off-ice and we prepare kids for what they will have to face down the road and how to handle situations, like if a coach is mad at them or a situation where they may have to persevere. There is more to it than shooting a puck and skating."

It's this kind of instruction that will help any of attendees go far, and I'm hoping that someone from one of the Hockey Camps of Hope will have his name called at an NHL Entry Draft in the near future. For now, though, the work being done by the Cheechoos is pretty incredible when it comes to getting Aboriginal youth deeper into the game.

I, for one, think the Hockey Camp of Hope is an amazing initiative, and I'd hope that the NHL lends its support to the camp at some point. For a sport that is primarily seen as being played by white males, the inclusion and support of the Aboriginal community would be a big step for hockey.

Your move, Mr. Bettman.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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