When COVID hit, athletes of all ages and abilities (including the Flames players themselves) found themselves on the sidelines in terms of being able to play their favorite sport, be around a peer group that supports them, and in an environment  that inspires them to dream big.  The rink was still there, the desire to be inside it burned intensely, but something beyond each person’s control kept them locked out.

For our HEROS & SuperHEROS players, that feeling of being locked out of a building you want in so badly it not temporary. Our players have never been able to see their reflection in the glass or hear the sound the ice makes under your skates.  In nearly every instance, they haven’t ever set foot in the rink even though they may pass it every day in and around their home.

Since 2006, nearly 1200 young HEROS in Calgary and area who otherwise wouldn’t get to play got the chance to see what the game looked like, sounded like, and felt like. All come from situations where finances are the primary barrier; more than 80% of our families struggle to meet their basic needs on an ongoing basis, and more than 95% say that sport of any kind is off the table due to the cost.  In addition, a range of social barriers such as isolation, living with caregivers other than parents, being new to Canada (in some cases weeks or months into a new life in a new country), personal identity, and so on make a traditional hockey or sport program not the right fit. These are the players that fee subsidy programs such as Flames Even Strength alone can’t bridge the gap for, but HEROS can.

In 2018, we were made aware that aspiring players living with cognitive and/or physical challenges had no place to play in Western Canada. Faced with a choice, we had to decide whether to wait for others to provide that place or create it ourselves. Our years of experience supporting youth in our HEROS program gave us confidence that it was doable, and we knew with certainly the players were waiting, but we needed partners to help bring SuperHEROS to life. And one of those very first partners was the Flames Foundation who were an integral part of our pilot project season in 2018/19. That one group of 24 players that first season grew to four groups spread across Calgary, Edmonton, & Regina in 2019/20 with more to come.

Be it HEROS or SuperHEROS the basic elements are the same. No one has ever paid a cent to play, and our programs are volunteer driven with caring and passionate people harnessing the power of sport to impact the lives of youth who need it most on and off the ice. Our players aren’t in a position to adapt to fit the traditional structures of hockey, instead we adapt the game to meet their needs. Our success measurements are not based on hockey skill; we use the game as a catalyst to promote self esteem, self awareness, goal setting, and most importantly the belief that anything is possible and they are capable of anything.

HEROS programs take part immediately after school, in the times often referred to as the ‘critical hours’, where children and youth are most likely to be faced with the toughest challenges and decisions with the most profound consequences. Our players are transported from school to the rink, provided with a healthy snack, and hit the ice for weekly sessions from September to March. Joining as early as Grade 4, they are invited to stay through High School completion and as they age are provided with opportunities to be peer mentors, learn leadership skills, and many return as adult volunteers. We help them develop goals, and plans to achieve them, up to and including aid for vocational training or post secondary training.  All of Calgary’s post secondary institutions have HEROS graduates pursuing a range of interests from trades to medical school and everything in between.

SuperHEROS is an adapted hockey program designed to ensure that disability is not a barrier to playing, integrating adaptive and assistive devices if required. Through nearly 1:1 volunteer to player ratio, we are able to ensure that every player has the on ice experience they want, that sets them up to achieve success, and working in close collaboration with family can challenge the player to accomplish more than they thought they were capable of. SuperHEROS is hockey in its purest form, where players with a deep abiding passion to play get to be in a safe, supportive, and welcoming environment and be part of a team, and part of something bigger. More than anything, they get to see themselves as hockey players, and athletes like many of their same aged peers and are not defined by their disability but celebrated for their abilities and accomplishments.

COVID has taken sport from athletes for a relatively short time, though it has seemed like longer living in the moment.  The feeling of powerlessness associated with badly wanting to do something, but being prevented for reasons beyond your control has been at best a nuisance and at worst deeply impactful for many athletes. For our players, that feeling of powerlessness in not new or short lived. They have for a very long time passed arenas and hockey gear on the shelves of sporting goods stores believing it was not meant for them. Some have been told that they don’t belong in hockey, or sport in general, because of their barriers and nearly all have been made to feel that way. Because of partners like the Flames Foundation, we will be able to ensure more than 170 vulnerable & marginalized young people in Calgary & area this season will not feel that way. They will wear a jersey with the HEROS and SuperHEROS logos as well as the iconic Flaming C that will remind them they are in a welcoming, inclusive, and accepting environment where hockey is the game, but everything that comes from it is #BiggerThanHockey.

Kevin Hodgson
HEROS Executive Director