It’s amazing the pinball ricochets life takes, bringing us to experiences that we might otherwise miss if we stuck to our original plans. That’s how Windsor Lancers men’s hockey team ended up in British Columbia in September, visiting the infamous Kamloops Residential School, and helping rebuild a community devastated by forest fires, floods, and mud slides.
“My son Ray plays Junior A in the BCHL,” Kevin explains. “My wife [Theresa] and I dropped him off last year. That was when the forest fires were burning. It was unprecedented.”
The U.S./Canadian border was closed at the time, forcing Kevin and Theresa to drive home by the Canadian route.
“The drive took us through Kamloops,” Kevin continues. “We stopped at the Kamloops Residential School because everyone was talking about it.”
Indeed, the residential school was world-wide news after two hundred fifteen graves were found by ground-penetrating radar.
“We pulled up and it was a feeling I will never forget,” Kevin says.
He describes seeing two hundred fifteen children’s school uniforms fastened to the guardrail on the way into the grounds: one for each of the two hundred fifteen graves.
“It was a pretty emotional visit for us,” Kevin says. “On the way home, Theresa and I couldn’t help thinking: ‘Maybe we could do something with the team and go back to BC and partner with the First Nations and help some of the people who had been displaced by the fires.’”
It’s a tired cliché that, for athletes and their coaches, the playing field or ice rink is the entire world to them.
“Our goal is to help change people’s lives,” Kevin says.
Season after season, he seeks to open his players to the larger world with team-building excursions. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Kevin took his team to New Orleans on two separate occasions to help with rebuilding efforts. In 2001, following the 911 attacks in New York City, Kevin took players to Manhattan to pay tribute to the victims. Kevin not only views his players as athletes, but as citizens, and believes it’s his job to offer them experiences beyond the ice rink to bring insight and build character. So, a team-building trip to British Columbia dovetailed perfectly with his philosophy.
“After witnessing the devastation of the forest fires, floods, and mudslides out west, we wanted to help the First Nations community,” he says. “The natural disasters combined with the horrific news of the residential schools are more than anyone should have to deal with. Providing homes for five families is a great start, and I hope it will inspire other groups to do something similar.”
The unmarked graves found at the Kamloops Residential School shocked the conscience of the nation, and brought a dark and troubling aspect of Canada’s history into the light. The horror festered for decades beneath the façade of daily life, rising to the surface in unexpected moments. For instance, in 2016, during the Tragically Hip’s final concert in Kingston, Ontario, singer Gord Downie addressed the issue: “It’s going to take us one hundred years to figure out what the hell went on up there but it isn’t cool, and everybody knows that. It’s really, really bad. But we’re going to figure it out. You’re going to figure it out.”
At that time, Downie had teamed up with Essex County graphic novelist, Jeff Lemire, to create The Secret Path, which told the tragic true story of Chanie Wenjack, a twelve year old Ojibway boy who died in 1966 while attempting to walk through freezing temperatures from a residential school in Kenora, Ontario, to his home approximately 600 kilometres away.
The 215 graves at the Kamloops Residential School thrust the tragedy onto the front pages of newspapers across the country. Couple that discovery with the natural disasters that ravaged the area, and the community Kevin and the Windsor Lancers sought to help was in real pain.
It is easy to wonder in the face of such circumstances: “What good could we possibly do there?”
“While working with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina,” Kevin recalls, “someone told me: ‘It’s not your group alone that will make much of a difference, but when you add your group to the next group, to the next group, you can move mountains. It has to start somewhere.’”
Kevin enlisted the help of several people to make the trip happen.
“I reached out to people in Vancouver who put me in touch with Wayne Schnitzler, CEO of First Nation Emergency Service Society,” Kevin explains. “He passed the ball to Larry Price, supervisor of restoration. From that point on it was a huge planning piece. I worked with Greg Prymak, off ice director with our team, to put together an itinerary. Merrit BC was ground zero for us.”
He continues: “A big piece to that puzzle was UNIFOR National, which felt so strongly about our project. They financially supported much of it— committing $50,000 to support the team’s efforts. They also sent eight tradespeople to help with the building. That was huge.”
The team arrived in BC on Friday and on Saturday, they toured the Kamloops Residential School. They were joined by Dr. Beverly Jacobs, Senior Advisor to the President on Indigenous Relations and Outreach at the University of Windsor. She helped prepare the team for what they would encounter visiting the residential school.
Aside from helping with rebuilding in Merrit, the Lancers conducted hockey camps for kids from five bands.
The team worked by day and trained at night. They got the full experience of living in a disaster area, sleeping on cots in a local gymnasium. It certainly didn’t slow them down. When they met the UBC Thunderbirds for two exhibition games, the Lancers won both.
Reflecting on the experience, Kevin says: “The guys in my dressing room are influencers, the leaders of tomorrow. I want them to take this experience with them, and maybe it will have a ripple effect. Maybe instead of only influencing hundreds of people it may influence thousands of people because of this ripple effect.”