VANCOUVER - This holiday season, Norm Flynn attended 11 parties in eight cities across Canada.
If things go according to plan, he will have a chance to travel to even more in 2013.
Flynn is the founder and executive director of Vancouver-based Hockey Education Reaching Out Society, more commonly known as HEROS. Operated mainly by volunteers, the group's program assists youngsters in some of Canada's poorest neighbourhoods.
The parties, which included dinner and gifts for program participants and their families and donations to community groups, were extensions of regular on-ice and off-ice sessions that include hockey instruction and off-ice counselling.
Since Flynn started HEROS in 1999, it has expanded from 13 youngsters from Vancouver's notoriously poor Downtown Eastside to more than 450 – and counting – per year in communities ranging from Calgary to Toronto and points in between, but not Saskatchewan or the Maritimes — yet.
"We're researching a couple of new locations (for HEROS chapters) for 2013," said Flynn.
Since its inception, HEROS has helped more than 3,400 boys and girls. For every kid that is in the program, there are two or three times that many who can't get in because of limits on numbers that schools select, said Flynn. HEROS also attempts to control expansion in order to grow properly.
Flynn, 51, a former junior and university player, forged the idea for HEROS based on his own upbringing in Winnipeg's North End. As a youth, he fought frequently in his crime-laden neighbourhood before getting involved in hockey.
He advanced to the Western Hockey League, while also toiling briefly in the Manitoba and Saskatchewan junior leagues, and earned a five-year scholarship to the University of Winnipeg, where he obtained a business degree.
But Flynn, who now lives in Vancouver, did not like what became of some friends. Some joined gangs and were killed in shootings.
The former Colgate sales executive started HEROS as a volunteer while also investing some of his own money, modelling it after New York City's successful Hockey in Harlem project. In 2006, he gave up his business career to devote himself full-time to HEROS.
In addition to Vancouver, HEROS chapters operate on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast as well as in Calgary (two), Edmonton, Winnipeg (two), Toronto (two), Montreal, and Ottawa, which started up this year. Participants are chosen by schools in qualifying neighbourhoods.
Participants include native Canadians and immigrants, many of whom have struggled in school and are dealing with attention deficit disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome and other health issues. In addition to being bullied, some are trying to amend their bullying ways. Several early program participants are now involved as mentors in the group led by 100 volunteers.
Primary financial contributors are Telus, which just renewed a three-year, $1-million sponsorship agreement, and national law firm Davis LLP, which donates $25,000 annually and has provided more than $1 million, said Flynn. Some NHL teams, such as the Calgary Flames, are involved through their charitable foundations.
HEROS program manager Kevin Hodgson said the group aims to use hockey as a catalyst for positive change off the ice while helping kids stay active in the game throughout their lives. Leaders use time before and after on-ice sessions to discuss difficulties youngsters are facing at home and school and to provide counselling support related to health, nutrition and personal matters.
"In a couple of our programs, where the kids are older, they certainly work up a good sweat and develop some real solid hockey skills. But we try to balance the fun and the fundamental skill development," said Hodgson, a social worker who played in the Notre Dame Hounds high school program in Wilcox, Sask.
"And then when the kids get off the ice … we check in with them. If it's a kid who's had struggles in school, we'll provide some strategies for the week with them where they could be successful. Or there could be trouble at home (that needs to be addressed.) So when they get off the ice, they don't just get undressed and leave.
"So it's really a group mentorship in terms of all the volunteers together working with a large group of kids. But it's really a mentoring relationship where we spend an hour of that time on the ice, but two to three hours together."
The aim is not to produce NHLers, but rather to help prepare the youngsters for future careers away from the game, said Hodgson.
Hodgson got involved as a volunteer when Flynn expanded the program to his native Calgary in 2006 and last summer became a staff member while still being based in the southern Alberta city.
"We're here to start their engines, and we're hoping that they will continue on (to post-secondary education)," added Flynn.
In cases where players want to play more competitively and have the means to travel to games, HEROS provides financial assistance, in conjunction with other groups, to cover registration costs. Equipment for minor hockey players and regular program participants is provided through such organizations as Forzani Group’s Power of Sport for Kids, the National Hockey League Players Association’s Goals and Dreams Fund and NHL clubs.
Current and past NHLers have gone on the ice with the kids. Flames defenceman Jay Bouwmeester, whose mother taught at an Edmonton school involved with the program, serves as its official spokesman.
"They've gotten to know (Bouwmeester) as a person, not as an NHL player," said Hodgson. "They're past the starstruck thing. When Jay comes in, they just see him as Jay, a guy who believes in us. That's really profound for these kids, to know that somebody who's on a bigger stage is just a good human being."
Winnipeg Jets winger Evander Kane has participated in a HEROS summer session in his hometown of Vancouver and is expected to become more active in the Manitoba capital with HEROS once the NHL lockout ends.
HEROS also provides post-secondary scholarships for participants to help further their education. This year, 10 scholarships have been handed out, but the number is slated to increase to approximately 36 over the next two years and 50 within five years.
Nick Wilson, 24, who has been involved with HEROS for about 11 years, said the program provided him with opportunities that he would never have had otherwise. Wilson, now a HEROS mentor, grew up on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where he still resides.
With financial and other help from HEROS, he was able to play minor hockey, get through college criminology studies and obtain employment as a recreational leader with an Aboriginal centre also located on the Downtown Eastside.
Wilson, who was raised by a single mother and is of partial Aboriginal descent, is going through the Vancouver Police Department’s interview process and hopes to enter the police academy in the spring.
"It’s a great stepping stone for me in my career," Wilson said of HEROs. "It gives (disadvantaged kids) the opportunity to experience a lot more than they possibly could."
HEROS is the only Canadian member of the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone program. Flynn serves as the NHL program’s chairman of the board.