Thunder Bay·Audio

'Never be scared' to talk about mental health says Thunder Bay peewee hockey team

The Volunteer Pool Bearcats, a Thunder Bay peewee hockey team, usually wears black jerseys. But for this weekend's annual Robin's Minor Hockey Classic in the northwestern Ontario city, they're sporting bright green sweaters to encourage more discussion around mental health issues in children.

Volunteer Pool Bearcats playing this weekend in annual Robin's tournament which brings together 2,500 athletes

Liam Crago (left) plays goalie for the Thunder Bay Volunteer Pool Bearcats, while Cody Labreche (right) plays defense. The team, under the direction of head coach Dave Meunier (centre), started the green jersey initiative to encourage discussion around mental health issues in children and youth. (Cathy Alex/CBC)

The Volunteer Pool Bearcats, a Thunder Bay peewee hockey team, usually wears black jerseys. But for this weekend's annual Robin's Minor Hockey Classic in the northwestern Ontario city, they're sporting bright green sweaters, which say Children's Centre Foundation, to encourage more discussion around children's mental health issues. It's a move that has given one of their own players the courage to speak out.

The Robin's tournament is one of the largest in Canada, bringing together 136 teams from as far west as Saskatchewan and as far east as Wawa. Nearly 2,500 players, ranging in age from 4 to 17, participate.

According to statistics, one in every five children in Ontario is struggling with mental health challenges. With so many kids in one place at one time, the Bearcats, who are all 11 and 12-years-old, wanted to use the tournament to show their support for young people dealing with mental health issues, and let them know it's okay to ask for help.

'If we show we care, maybe they'll want to talk'

"If you feel upset or something, you shouldn't just keep it to yourself because that can make things worse," said defenseman Cody Labreche. "We wanted to do it because some people on our team might have problems that they don't want to talk about, and since your team is almost like your second family, if we show we all care, maybe they'll want to talk about it."

That caring attitude has made a huge difference to goalie Liam Crago, Labreche's teammate on the Bearcats.

"I have an autoimmune disease called alopecia and it's where I lose all my hair. So, before, I was kind of scared to tell my hockey team about it, and I'm not really anymore," he said.

Crago's public acknowledgement of the support he's received from his team was a surprise to his head coach Dave Meunier, who was deeply moved.

'I'm so proud of you'

"That took me right off guard. I'm so proud of you," he said, looking directly at Crago. "I'm really thrilled that that was able to happen through this initiative, that it was able to help him with that, because I know how hard it was for Liam to show his teammates."

Meunier started the green jersey initiative several years ago, when he read an article about children's mental health, written by the Children's Centre, which offers a variety of counselling and support services in Thunder Bay. It gave him a better understanding of some of the issues he was seeing in the dressing room and he wanted to help.

"At the beginning of some seasons, we'd have children come in wearing all their gear because they didn't have the self-confidence to change or dress with their teammates," he said. "A lot of the team building comes from just being in the dressing room and interacting and throwing hockey tape around while they put their shin pads on. It doesn't seem like much, but it is a big aspect to the players."

Kids often keep quiet about problems they're facing

Since launching the green jersey program, he said the players share more about all aspects of their lives, the good and the bad.

"As parents of these children, we look at them and see them getting bigger and they're great young adults but they're still 11 and 12 years old and they don't react to the things going on in their life the same way an adult would so when they're really having a hard time with things, they're keeping it to themselves because they don't know where to turn and that's part of why we're doing this as well and that's where the Children's Centre and other organizations.. can help them through it, especially if they can't talk to a parent because that may be where the issue is."

The campaign has also had a ripple effect with the team looking for ways to give back to the community through fundraising for the pediatric wing at the hospital, supporting the Children's Aid Society and now at the Robins tournament.

'Never be scared' to talk mental health

The message Crago hopes other players can take away from their games with the Bearcats this weekend is that "you should never be scared if you have a mental health issue."

The Robin's tournament runs Jan. 16 - Jan. 19 in Thunder Bay.

You can hear the full interview with the Bearcats on CBC Up North here.

The annual Robins Minor Hockey Classic is underway in Thunder Bay. It's one of the largest tournaments in Canada, with 136 teams taking part. Nearly 2500 players, between the ages of 4 and 17, are on the ice. According to statistics, approximately one in five of those young people is likely suffering from some kind of mental health issue. The Volunteer Pool Bearcats PeeWee team from Thunder Bay wants to make sure those kids get the help they need. The CBC's Cathy Alex caught up with the Bearcats defenseman Cody Labreche, goalie Liam Crago and head coach Dave Meunier rinkside. 7:36