Hockey Helps the Homeless: The tournament of your dreams for a good cause

A full day of hockey for a good cause. Vancouver's Hockey Helps the Homeless tournament is bigger than ever.

Play with the pros: Hockey Helps the Homeless

Hockey is where the heart is

It's not yet dawn at Thunderbird Stadium, and frost covers the ground. A hell of a night to be stuck outside. That's why we're here: for the Hockey Helps the Homeless tournament.

Hockey Helps the Homeless is where Vancouverites channel their passion for the national religion into real support for the city's homeless support programs.

Hockey Helps the Homeless is all about providing the "hockey" part for its supporters. You raise some cash, and then you play hockey. You play lots of hockey. Each player is guaranteed three 50-minute games, plus more should they reach the finals. There are no penalties, only penalty shots for egregious fouls: this maximizes ice time.

Lucas Riedl, an HHTH organizer, is suiting up for the first game of the day. He explains how the money raised by the tournament gets distributed. "We work with six different community partners at this point. The Bloom Group, Urban Native Youth Association, Covenant House Vancouver, Rain City Housing, Lookout Emergency Aid Society, and First United Church."

Lucas Riedl

They disburse the money they raise on a per-project basis, based on the impact of the project and the impact of the donated money.

"We look for proposals from them, what their needs are, said Riedl. "Originally when we started, we thought more of brick-and-mortar projects," such as building and repairing shelters. Among these was the expansion of the Powell Place women's shelter on the DTES, and a bed bug sauna for the Yukon Shelter on 5th near Cambie.

Since the early days, though, "We expanded a little bit because prevention is also key." To this end, Hockey Helps the Homeless has also funded sports programs for native youth, life-skills and leadership programs: "You can build all the shelters you want– if you don't have support, it really doesn't matter."

Locker room talk

The promise of a "fantasy hockey experience" begins right away. Stepping into the locker room, you see each player's personalized jersey hung along the wall: it's hard to tell who is a fundraiser and who is a former NHL pro (there are two of them per team). The participants vary widely in age and background. Some could be your father, some could be your son.

I barged in on Team Heenan Blaikie, who would be receiving help from former Canuck Dave Babych and New West's own Mark Lofthouse, who played for the Capitals and the Red Wings.

Ryan Patryluk, a partner with Heenan Blaikie, has become addicted to the experience: “This is our second year. It’s a great cause, so I’m happy to come out, it’s a fun day on the ice. With some NHL veterans.”

Taking a break from a life of hockey for a bit of... hockey, Dave Babych is taking part in his third HHTH tournament: “We can play hockey anywhere. We can play with the alumni anytime or go to any rink. It’s for a good cause, so if we help bring some people out, or if we help bring more money in, that’s great.”

Dave BabychDave Babych

Mark Lofthouse, whose team won last year's tournament, added, "It’s a great cause, and it’s an easy one to get involved in. They keep inviting me back, so I keep coming back.”

Mark Lofthouse
Mark Lofthouse

Canucks bosses on the ice

Francesco Aquilini, whose Aquilini Investment Group owns the team, was playing against Canucks GM Mike Gillis in the second game of the morning.

Coming off the ice for a substitution, Gillis said, “I don’t play much anymore, so it’s always fun to get out here with a few people. People who dedicate their time and energy to help others, it’s always a good thing."

Aquilini, Gillis' nemesis for the next 50 minutes, could be found returning to the other team's bench: “It’s for a great cause... It’s great to be part of this. There are some pretty good  players out here: Greg Adams and Brian Hart, these guys can still play. We may have to sign ‘em up.”

Francesco Aquilini
Francesco Aquilini

Women's hockey

Aside from 10 men's teams, there are four women's teams taking part in Hockey Helps the Homeless. It's a tougher draw, since the women's national team trains in Calgary: there isn't much of a female hockey celebrity presence in Vancouver.

However, the ladies with whom I spoke were thrilled to play on Olympic ice, even though it was too early in the morning for cigars and champagne.

Kat Zambo's team didn't even bother with the we're-just-here-for-the cause rhetoric: "Winning is secondary, but..."

Kat Zambo
Kat Zambo at Thunderbird Stadium

Zambo pounced as soon as the chance to form a team for the tournament arose: "An awesome opportunity to play hockey with my favorite girls, and to raise funds.”

They're here to play

The 14 participating teams make use of all three rinks at Thunderbird. Keeping the playing surfaces of the stadium in good shape during a full day of use means the involvement of an icon as Canadian as the maple leaf itself:

The Vancouver tournament's goal was to raise $350,000, and I'm told that they were within striking distance as the tournament began.

The event is much larger in Toronto, where the event has been running for 18 years. There the tournament goes on for two days, and spectators pay for tickets.

Vancouver's HHTH is growing, though: this year sees play at three rinks, as well as a beer garden, silent auction, and a bit of facetime with the former pros.

Hockey Helps the Homeless also holds tournaments in Ottawa, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg. If you missed it this time around, you can start planning for next winter.

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