OPINION: Don Cherry debate sadly overshadows true hockey heroes

Sarnia coach and Janie Puck founder Brian DeWagner chats with his girls during a visit to the University of Michigan Women’s Hockey Team in March. Photo courtesy, June Partridge

Canada’s favourite national pastime has been in the spotlight this month, and it hasn’t been pretty.

You can’t log onto social media without running into a debate about Don Cherry’s firing for comments suggesting newcomers to Canada don’t wear poppies; or media personality Jess Allen’s description of hockey players, in her experience, as “white boys” and “bullies” from wealthier families.

(Both have since attempted to clarify their comments).

I, for one, am tired of it all.

Of course there’s no room for racism in hockey. We know its history is rife with toxic masculinity, abuse and bullying. And, sadly, it’s an expensive and inaccessible sport for too many families.

But instead of diving into the who’s-right-or-wrong debate, I’d rather tell you about some positively wonderful people who are changing hockey in our community for the better.

Have you heard of Janie Puck? The brainchild of Brian DeWagner and wife June, the program encourages girls to get involved with hockey, who might not otherwise have the opportunity. It’s cheap, there’s no pressure to ‘make a team’ and if you don’t have all the right equipment, the DeWagners will help you out.

In fact, girls’ hockey is one of the fastest growing sports in the world.

Mooretown recently launched its own Girls Hockey Association and has already sent teams to the provincial championships. Girls as young as three are signing up for ‘Try-it’ skate sessions run by volunteer parents, introducing girls to the game in a positive environment.

This past summer, Sarnia coach and mental health advocate Tom Babcock launched the First Shift program, introducing new-to-hockey families to the game, in an accessible, affordable safe and fun way.

Thanks to Babcock’s efforts and mission to expose more kids to hockey, Sarnia was chosen for one of 73 hosting programs in Ontario, quickly selling out all 45 spots, and already planning for next year.

And let’s not forget Bright’s Grove native and professional player Jessica Platt, an advocate for both transgender rights and women’s professional hockey. The former Toronto Furies player headlined the first all-trans team series in Boston earlier this month, and continues her efforts with the PWHPA to secure a sustainable league for women’s hockey in North America.

Meanwhile, arenas across Lambton are hosting the annual Face Off For Mental Health campaign. The Legionnaires have introduced the Program of Excellence, which offers players guidance on everything from health and wellness to civic responsibility. And the Sarnia Sting continue to host the ‘Onside’ program for its players, through the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres and facilitated by the local Sexual Assault Survivors’ Centre.

And I’d love to see a program introducing Sarnia’s newcomers and immigrants to the game at local arenas.

I don’t know how any of these folks (and many others not mentioned) feel about Don Cherry or Jess Allen, but I doubt they’re ranting about it on Facebook.

They’re too busy working to make the latest catchphrase “Hockey is for Everyone” a reality.

And I think we can all agree on that.