Big goals, bigger assistsMarch 1, 2018 5:00 pm
True North Youth Foundation scores at feverish pace with programs lifting the lives of young Winnipeggers
Robert Swan has been a season-ticket holder for his beloved Winnipeg Jets since “day one” of their move here from Atlanta in 2011.
Same perch: Section 303, Row 1, Seats 5 and 6.
Swan was too young and, well, under-financed to buy season tickets for the first edition of the Jets. But the 55-year-old dental-equipment salesman threw down his credit card at the first opportunity to pony up after the NHL’s return to the city was announced.
But Swan doesn’t just buy tickets. Over the years, he has religiously taken part in the 50/50 draws at each game, dutifully spending between $20 and $50 on tickets.
“Oh, God, when you add it up… I’m probably good for about $1,000 a year,” he says.
Swan comes by his incentive honestly, though. You see, back on April 9, 2013, he and wife Ronda went to see the Jets host the Buffalo Sabres. He shelled out another $50 for the 50/50 draw.
That night, the Jets won 4-1. The Swans won just over $44,000.
They used the winnings to buy some kitchen appliances, pay down their mortgage and purchase a pool table.
“I had to convince my wife to buy something silly since it was money that basically that fell off a truck,” he says.
Here’s the thing, however. When it comes to 50/50 draws, which are notoriously popular with sports fans on the Prairies, most ticket buyers are understandably focused on the half they could take home.
Swan knew the other half went to the Jets’ True North Youth Foundation, but that’s as far as it went.
“Most people know that it’s going to a good cause, but they don’t know the specifics,” he says. “I don’t think most people know the scope of it.”
In fact, the Winnipeg Jets are unique, not just among NHL teams, but all North American sports franchises in how the TNYF operates; all of the programs that have been developed and flourished since 2011 are run entirely by True North staff.
Most franchises raise money through foundations, then distribute it to existing outside programs. Not the Jets.
In fact, since 2011, 50/50 funds have raised about $8.5 million. Another $500,000 is collected annually through the Mike Keane Celebrity Hockey Classic and Winnipeg Jets Gala Dinner, bringing the total to about $12 million to date.
Over the last seven years, that money has been invested in three primary programs: Camp Manitou, a year-round retreat for children, most of whom have never experienced camp; The Winnipeg Jets Hockey Academy, which provides selected students with up to nine years of free hockey, tutoring and even meals; and Project 11, a legacy school-based program to teach health and mental wellness, dedicated to the memory of former Manitoba Moose and Vancouver Canucks player Rick Rypien.
Indeed, if you think the Jets have evolved on the ice — from a mostly non-playoff team to a legitimate Stanley Cup contender — what the franchise has done away from Bell MTS Place may, perhaps, be even more impressive, albeit with a lot less fanfare.
Or none at all, as is the case when Jets co-owner Mark Chipman heads down to the Bell MTS IcePlex to help coach kids in the hockey academy, while wife Patti ties skate laces and tends kids at the bench. The young students — many on skates for the first time — have no clue who Coach Mark, or “Chipper,” is.
The goal of the TNYF has always been straightforward: “Professional sports is a tough business,” foundation executive director Dwayne Green says. “If you can leverage that to make a real positive impact in your community, it makes it all worthwhile.”
So when Robert Swan and thousands of his fellow Jets Nation members buy their 50/50 tickets, they might have visions of mortgage payments and pool tables dancing in their heads. But this is what the other half buys, which most fans will never see.
It’s a typical frigid Sunday afternoon in February when a man named Rotini Akinronbi puts on hockey skates for the first time.
Akinronbi, a father of three young girls, is explaining why he and his wife, Bukola, decided just three months ago to move here, leaving behind good jobs in Nigeria.
“Life here for kids is better,” he says.
The accountant, who is still looking for a job in his new homeland, is quite serious when talking about his daughters’ future. But once on the ice at Camp Manitou — located in a wooded area along the Assiniboine River just west of the city — he is transformed.
Akinronbi sticks out his tongue when a photographer tries to take his picture. He’s smiling while taking tentative strides on the open-air rink.
“I’m fine,” he assures a stranger, then grabs a hockey stick and starts slapping at pucks.
Around him, there are a couple of dozen other newcomers taking part in the camp’s Welcome to Canada event. Participants have come from India, Syria, Iraq and Eritrea, among other points from around the globe. They’re spending the day tobogganing, snowshoeing and, generally, getting their winter on.
Most are experiencing these activities for the first time.
“These guys are literally going from plus-30 C to minus-30 C,” says Tarek Aziz, who helps organize the event. “It’s something new to them.”
Despite temperatures in the minus-20s, no one is hiding indoors.
“You need to experience everything around you,” Akinronbi says.
Out on the ice, 22-year-old Day-Iris Muheto is taking his first strides in skates, too.
“I feel excited,” says the construction worker from the African Republic of Burundi. “But at the beginning I was freaking out. I’m going to fall down and fall down and break my arm. I was thinking it was easy. But it’s really like walking in high heels. It’s hard.”
Around Muheto, almost every spill elicits howls of laughter from those safely planted in the bench area.
This scene is new, even at Camp Manitou, which has been around in some form or another since the 1930s. The TNYF purchased the camp in 2014, taking over a property in disrepair.
The foundation has sunk more than $3 million into improvements that include 12 new fully insulated and heated cottages, costing about $60,000 each, which opened last year. The new building housing the Zamboni was another $200,000.
But the latest addition is the modest outdoor rink, which used to be located at the Silver Heights Community Centre. It’s lit up at night for kids to practise, and includes two adjacent dressing rooms, showers and washrooms that cost about $1 million to construct.
“It’s like a field of dreams out here,” says camp director Rick Bochinski.
When the foundation first took over the camp, capacity was 68. Now it’s up to 182.
Most of the action, however, occurs between May and September, when the property is mostly occupied by grade-schoolers biking through the 20 acres, fishing in the nearby Assiniboine River, rock climbing or flying down a zip line.
During July and August, the camp is booked with various groups, such as Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, church groups and even corporate retreats. But in May, June and September, the clientele is largely made up of students — many of whom are experiencing overnight camp for the first time.
Kids who’ve never ridden a bike. Never spent a night away from home. Never dropped a fishing line in the water.
“That’s what charges our battery,” Bochinski says. “That’s a big reason why we exist.”
Lindsay Boyko, a teacher at Bertrun E. Glavin School in the Valley Gardens neighbourhood, says many of the Grade 5 students invited to spend time at the camp — the majority of whom are from lower-income families — are, at first, reluctant to even leave their own neighbourhood to take in the experience.
“We had to almost sell it,” Boyko says. “Since then (first time) it’s been a go.”
About “90 per cent” of the 50 students who go to camp each year have never built a campfire or held a bow and arrow, she says.
“You’re waiting for the moment where it clicks in,” she says. “It’s probably my favourite time of year.”
Boyko recalls one boy who had never pedalled a bike before, who ditched the training wheels and went straight into some trees. “He didn’t care that he had a few scratches. He was as happy as he could be.”
The school does some fundraising to try and lower the cost, which is about $60 a student. The camp subsidizes parents who can’t afford to pay.
Jared Lehotsky, a teacher at David Livingstone School in the city’s North End, says a key benefit of the camp is for teachers, parents and students to interact in an environment away from school.
“We’ve never had a bad interaction with parents and kids at Camp Manitou,” Lehotsky says. “Everyone is in a good mood. I think that one day can help motivate them for days afterwards.
“It’s just nice to see them in good spirits for a change. And, really, it’s something all kids should get a chance to do. And these kids don’t necessarily get that chance.”
The camp operates at a loss, on a budget of about $500,000 a year.
“We try to keep the rates low so we’re not turning away kids who can’t afford it,” Bochinski says. “That’s a huge piece for us.”
The camp is run by up to 50 staff, made up largely of university and high school students. Stays can range from day trips to a week.
Along with the experience, Bochinski says kids are encouraged to take risks, make friends and participate in team-building.
While the facility has grown in the last few years, it’s about to get bigger. An adjacent 11-acre property was just donated to the foundation and there are already plans to construct a man-made lake within two years. Maybe a petting zoo, too.
An ice plant and open-air roof for the outdoor rink are also in the plans.
“In three years, (the camp) probably won’t even be recognizable,” TNYF’s Green says.
Before the reincarnation of the Winnipeg Jets in 2011, there was the Little Moose, a program in which the city’s AHL franchise Manitoba Moose “adopted” some inner-city kids to teach them hockey.
About 125 kids from five schools were involved.
Murray Cobb, a social worker who once played goal for a professional team in Serbia, was on the front lines. He’d make sure the kids were picked up at school and dropped off at the rink. Cobb even had his rusted Honda Civic packed with sandwiches for the students, made by volunteers in the basement of the Winnipeg Aboriginal Sports Achievement Centre.
How times have changed. With the NHL’s return, the Little Moose morphed into the Winnipeg Jets Hockey Academy. Now there are 23 schools participating in the program that boasts almost 800 kids. The plan is to expand to 1,000 students in the next few years.
Essentially, the program is a long-term commitment; parents don’t pay a nickel for what could be up to nine years of hockey.
Teachers in participating schools choose students using various criteria: kids whose families can’t afford the cost of equipment or ice time; kids who could benefit from a support system; kids at risk of abandoning school; and kids who might otherwise never get a chance to skate.
If selected, the boy and girls, usually beginning in Grade 4, but sometimes later, are driven by school bus to practice once a week for 25 weeks. They are fitted with equipment from a vast warehouse full of gear at the IcePlex. They are provided free ice time, including instruction from up to five coaches/volunteers. They are fed.
The program, which has evolved as the students advanced through the school system, now includes two tutors and a career/post-secondary counsellor on the academy staff for an after-school program of 15 weeks.
In addition, the academy now has six teams (two girls, four boys) competing in minor hockey. Another 30 kids also play minor hockey on teams scattered throughout the city. The academy covers their registration costs, plus any additional fees, such as for tournaments.
“Everything that could be a barrier we get rid of it,” says Cobb, now the WJHA director. “We wanted to be more than a recreation program with a one-off here and one-off there.”
The cost per student runs about $1,800 a year. The academy’s annual budget is about $1 million.
Of course, since the vast majority of the students are hockey neophytes, the program starts with baby steps. One of the first lessons coaches teach is how to fall down safely.
“We joke that it’s the Bambi phase,” Cobb says with a chuckle.
Ryan Giesbrecht, now 12, joined the academy last year. The Chief Peguis Junior High student didn’t know how to skate “whatsoever,” but his older brother is part of the program, so he wanted a taste of hockey, too.
“I did not get discouraged,” Ryan says shortly before hitting the ice at the Gateway Recreation Centre in North Kildonan. “I just kept trying and trying until I finally got it. Now I’m out there like there’s no tomorrow. I want to skate so bad.”
Ryan wants to try out for a community club team next year. Is he ready?
“Maybe,” he says with a shrug. “People have their opinions. I just ignore the haters.”
Ryan’s teacher, Jordon Yvon-Moreau, has been sending students to the academy for six years. The school has about 50 grade 6-8 participants. More than 60 others are on a waiting list.
How does Yvon-Moreau select?
“Someone who could use an opportunity, who could use a sense of belonging to a group. Something to get involved with in a positive way,” he says.
Many students at Chief Peguis are from low-income families. Just travelling to a “strange” arena to participate in an unfamiliar sport with other kids can be a challenge, he says.
But with five coaches on the ice and up to five volunteers manning the benches, adapting becomes less intimidating.
“They’re surrounded by a network of support,” Yvon-Moreau says. “It’s really awesome. It’s kind of like drops in the bucket. You see the benefits on ice. And then you see the benefits in their social life, too, off the ice. The program keeps getting better as they move forward.
“It’s a social-development program under the disguise of a hockey program.”
Lisa Csurdi’s 10-year-old daughter Precious, who attends Crestview School, joined the academy last year. She cried after her first practice, telling her mother: “I can’t do what (the other players) are doing.”
The tears quickly evaporated, even though her team lost every game last year.
“They’re losing and she comes off smiling,” Csurdi says, adding Precious plays forward. “They’re happy just to get to play. We’re very lucky. It’s exciting to watch their games. They go from barely skating to racing down the ice. Now she’s just hooked on it.
“(And the academy wants) to help them be better people in the future, keep them on the right track.”
Csurdi’s three sons, Cha-Wat, 9, J.J. 12, and Swayne,14, also participate on academy teams.
“Now it’s like hockey mania for them,” she says. “Everybody’s crazy for hockey, especially on game day.”
Does the program work? According to data from the St. James Assiniboia School Division, grade averages for students enrolled in WJHA remain virtually unchanged from elementary years (80.9 per cent) to high school (79.5 per cent). Grade averages for students who don’t participate in WJHA drop from 85.8 per cent in elementary to 75.5 per cent in high school.
Meanwhile, average absences in the division are significantly lower — between 33 to 40 per cent — for WJHA students when compared to non-WJHA students at John Taylor Collegiate, Sturgeon Heights Collegiate and St. James Collegiate.
In the River East Transcona School Division, attendance rates for WJHA students rise from 81 per cent in elementary to 89 per cent in high school, while rates for non-WJHA students fall from 91 per cent to 86 per cent.
“If that holds true another two years, the program is a slam-dunk,” Cobb says, adding, “It’s not going to be this perfectly smooth path, but the potential is there. It’s a comprehensive, long-term program. And if they stay involved, it can help get them where they want to go.”
In fact, the WHJA now includes a Living Philanthropy program — established by Price Industries and now including nine other corporate partners — where the company employees volunteer as coaches. The goal is not just to volunteer, but create connections for future internships and employment as students reach graduation.
This year, 13 students from the original Little Moose program will graduate from high school. By 2020, that number will be 50.
It can be a small world, sometimes.
When Suzi Friesen was a high school student, she had a secret: Her mother suffered from depression and would sometimes need treatment. That meant Friesen was often making up excuses to her friends as to why she couldn’t be somewhere, or what her mom was doing.
Friesen’s choir teacher was Stacey Nattrass, who Jets fans will know as the woman who sings the national anthems at home games. Nattrass ran into Friesen while visiting someone at the same treatment facility her mother was in at the time.
Nattrass quietly pulled Friesen aside. “I’m here if you ever need to talk,” she told her student.
At first, Friesen was mortified. Her secret was out. But she just as quickly felt a wave of relief.
“(Nattrass) really showed how I wasn’t alone and the importance of reaching out,” Friesen recalls. “It was a pivotal point for me.”
Friesen eventually became a teacher in the Seven Oaks School Division. On her own, she developed a program for teaching the importance of a healthy mind, body and environment. She didn’t want her students to feel as isolated and alone as she once did as a teenager.
Then came perhaps the worst moment in the short history of the Winnipeg Jets. In the summer of 2011, Rick Rypien, who had played for the Manitoba Moose and then the team’s NHL parent Vancouver Canucks, was signed to play for Winnipeg.
It was supposed to be a homecoming. But Rypien, who had for years suffered from severe depression — and fallen under the supportive wing of Jets asssistant general manager Craig Heisinger — committed suicide shortly before the team’s first training camp was set to open.
Immediately, Heisinger and the Jets resolved to establish a program in Rypien’s memory. They didn’t know exactly what back then, but they knew it would involve addressing the issue of mental wellness in kids — something Rypien had hoped to do himself.
First, the Jets organization waited for the franchise to find its feet.
“It had to be done right and needed our undivided attention,” Heisinger says.
The Jets unveiled their plans for Project 11 (Rypien’s jersey number) in 2013. Over the next several months, the TNYF established a program in partnership with Healthy Child Manitoba that included input from representatives of the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority and the Manitoba Teachers Society.
By that time, Friesen’s program had caught the attention of the foundation. She was hired to finalize and introduce the program to grades 5-8 students in 2014.
At first, the pilot program included 86 grades 5 and 6 teachers who volunteered to present the program in their classrooms, which included just over 2,000 students.
Today, there are more than 570 teachers giving Project 11 lessons to 11,500 students in Manitoba.
The lessons are teacher-friendly. They consist of about 70 videos that deal with issues ranging from conflict resolution, to the importance of friendships, to not being afraid to reach out for help.
This year, Project 11 introduced another pilot project for Grade 4 students.
“The sooner you can promote healthy coping strategies, the better,” Friesen says. “We don’t want students to be withdrawn and dealing with problems on their own.”
The videos, developed by True North Sports and Entertainment’s video-production department, feature Friesen, but also include segments with Jets players. Former Jets defenceman Mark Stuart was involved in the first two years; current players Nikolaj Ehlers, Bryan Little and Eric Comrie.
TSN’s Sara Orlesky and radio personality Ace Burpee are also involved in the video segments.
In her Grade 4 classroom at Brooklands School, teacher Heather Blacker is delivering one of the pilot lessons: How to disagree with people.
For the record, Blacker is a monster Jets fan, evidenced by the team of player bobbleheads sitting by her desk and the life-sized, six-foot-eight Tyler Myers growth chart on the classroom door.
The lesson focuses on resolving conflict: how to have a dialogue and arrive at win-win solutions. Students are partnered up to solve hypothetical situations that would be common in grade school.
Blacker has been involved with Project 11 from its inception, and says just speaking to children about the importance of reaching out and recognizing red flags for stresses at school or home is already paying dividends.
“What I see from them is for us to have more conversations about harder topics for kids,” she says. “And they are very open to talk about it.”
One student, Alyssa, adds: “It teaches you that it’s OK to talk… if you’re sad or mad about something or just feeling empty inside. It makes you feel better about yourself. I feel I’m so open when I have friends I can trust and be safe around.”
The program includes offering better nutrition options and activities such as yoga. Blacker plays a relaxation audio recording for students each day after lunch. The recording is narrated by Friesen.
“It’s part of our routine,” Blacker says. “My kids feel so connected to Suzi. They don’t even know her, but she’s part of their learning.”
Results to date have been encouraging. According to teacher/student surveys, the odds of being bullied by others in the in the P11 program decreased by 54 per cent. Teachers also reported decreases in emotional symptoms, conduct issues, hyperactivity and peer-relationship problems for P11 students. Program data will be monitored in conjunction with provincial support and strategy network Healthy Child Manitoba.
In the next few years, after establishing Project 11 from grades 4 to 8 across Manitoba, TNYF plans to work to expand the program outside the province. Green has already spoken to a teachers’ association in New Brunswick.
“Ultimately, we’d like Project 11 to be across North America,” he says. “Why not? It’s scalable. And it’s no cost.”
But that’s down the road. For now, Friesen says the foundation — which held its first Mental Wellness Summit at the Burton Cummings Theatre on Jan. 31 for 3,000 students — is heartened that a program developed in Rypien’s memory has grown so big, so fast.
“It meant a lot knowing Rick’s family and how much he wanted to help others,” she says. “We’re carrying on his legacy.”
Jets captain Blake Wheeler has been to Camp Manitou. He’s spoken to kids as the team’s TNYF ambassador.
“That’s the reward,” Wheeler says. “Seeing how any donations the youth foundation makes — whether it’s time or money — how it’s helping kids who wouldn’t (otherwise) get those opportunities.
“And if they’re given those opportunities, they’re going to stay in school, they’re going to be more willing to do their homework, if they have something to look forward to. It makes the kids not only want to be part of the program, but want to be part of their classes as well.
“As important as the Jets are to the city, I think these programs reach farther than that. They have an impact around the city that’s pretty rewarding for the players to see. I think that’s why they keep coming back (to be involved).”
Green has seen the payoff, too. He’s literally watched the students grow and mature with the programs over the last seven years.
“To see them flourish in a leadership role, you’re almost speechless,” he says. “It makes it all worthwhile.”
The best moments, if Green has to choose, would be when Rypien’s family — mother Shelley and grandmother Pat — attended a Project 11 lesson in a Winnipeg classroom in 2015.
“That was emotional, to say the least,” he says.
Then there was a girls hockey team that lost every game during their first season together. They scored one goal all year, Green recalls, maybe two. After the last game of the season, Green walked into the dressing room to thank the players and parents for sticking with the program.
He’ll never forget what he saw that day.
“They were all hugging their coaches and crying because their season was over,” he says. “You never see that after a losing season. But for them to be that connected and that thankful and that proud…
“That’s why you do it.”