It was the perfect ending to a hockey season for a group of inner-city kids in Winnipeg as Jets forwards Jim Slater and Anthony Peluso made a surprise visit to Norquay Community Centre Sunday afternoon.
Together, Slater and Peluso signed autographs and took pictures with over a hundred kids in attendance as part of a wind-up event put on by organizers of the North End Hockey Program.
"Coming here and seeing the excitement from the kids is great," commented Slater. "They give us support throughout our season and to be able to come out and support their team means a lot.
"I’m very appreciative of everything I’ve been given throughout my career and to be able to share that with these kids is absolutely the ultimate thing to do."
The North End Hockey Program (NEHP) is a city initiative that began in 2010, created to give low-income families the opportunity to participate in Canada’s greatest tradition. Just this past season, the program funded seven teams, totaling 119 players aged 13 and under.
For many families, the impact of the program has been life-changing.
Billy Pitura is a father of three, all of which are enrolled in the program. When asked what the program has done for his family he paused for a moment to think about where his oldest son, 14-year-old Harley, would be had he not decided to strap on the skates.
'This program has saved all our lives.' —Billy Pitura
"He almost joined a street gang," recalled Pitura. "My wife and I didn’t know what to do so we registered him for the program."
Pitura, a former street gang member himself, doesn't hestitate in proclaiming the program's value to his family.
"My boys grew up watching me and, as an ex-gang member, they were around it all. That’s no longer the case," he said.
"This program has saved all our lives."
Scanning the room, Pitura came up with a list of more than half a dozen other kids who were in the same situation as his son, now rescued by the game of hockey.
'Key to life'
Will Hudson has been with the program since the beginning, coaching the same Norquay Knights team for the past three years.
He’s had a special opportunity to watch his team grow from winning only one game in their first season, to capturing the 11A3 city championships this year.
"These guys set a goal to win and, by reaching that, we want them to continue to set high goals for themselves throughout their lives," said Hudson. "We’ve taught them that even if you don’t achieve every goal, as long as you’re trying to accomplish them, that’s the key to life.
"By giving them some kind of success at a young age, these kids are really going to benefit from this and remember it for the rest of their life."
It wasn’t long after standing amongst the many kids packed in the gym, that I realized the power of sport.
The image of each kid smiling ear to ear, their eyes glued to their new idols as they posed for pictures, acted as a simple reminder that equality in sport and life is important to building any community, especially those in greatest need.
"It means the world to these kids," said Angie Lamirande, who helped organize the event.
"Many of these kids here will never get the chance to see a Jets game and for them to have a photo with a Jet and have them be here in support of the program is unbelievable; life-changing for these kids."