Hockey dreams: NHL players a hit with area youth

Scores of excited local youth cheered into the Wickaninnish Community School’s street hockey rink last week to play alongside two NHL stars.

Former NHL great Brendan Morrison is a summertime Tofitian and has held an annual street hockey event for local kids for the past five years.

“It’s really crucial to connect with the grassroots of the community: the children,” he said. “Getting involved in the community is really important to me…I’m not here year-round full-time but I really respect and appreciate a tiny community like Tofino.

“They’ve got a lot of great initiatives going on here, a lot of involvement from the families that live here year-round, and it really helps sustain and make this a successful community so to be able to be a part of it in the summer and give back a fraction of what the locals do year-round is a cool thing.”

Morrison holds the event in conjunction with the Tofino Saltwater Classic, a fishing derby he hosts in Tofino each year that raises money for local groups like the Wickaninnish School, the Tofino Hospital and the Tofino Salmon Enhancement Society.

NHL Kings’ Willie Mitchell moving to Tofino Current NHL star and budding Tofino local Willie Mitchell joined Morrison at this year’s event and was excited to hop aboard the community commitment train.

Mitchell, who recently signed with the Florida Panthers, is a Vancouver Island raised frequent visitor to Tofino and is building a West Coast home to make his vacations more permanent.

“We’re slowly trying to build a place here and you won’t be getting rid of us anytime soon,” he laughed.

“Me and my wife got engaged here and it’s a therapeutic place for us. It’s a zennish spot; we’re kind of gypsies with professional sports, we travel all around North America but when we get here we can just check out, relax, and be ourselves…(Tofino) has a real raw nature which we really like and connect with.”

Mitchell has participated in the event before and with his eyes on cementing himself into the community, he was stoked on the opportunity to get involved and put smiles on the faces of local youth.

“When you’re local you want to give back and my great friend Brendan has done such a good job of that here in the community raising money for a bunch of different initiatives and giving back so I’m here to support him and his family and to get out with the kids,” he said.

“It’s a raw real deal thing where kids are excited and we do this fun little gig…We do it to put smile on some faces and get them out doing something they don’t get a chance to do everyday.”

Tofino Mayor Josie Osborne was thrilled to watch the community’s kids having a blast.

“Nothing is better than seeing kids inspired by some of their heroes so the time that both Willie and Brendan give to the community is so fantastic and so appreciated,” she said.

The grassroots hockey event is organized by community members with Tourism Tofino helping with promotion and the district’s Parks and Recreation team providing a water station.

“It’s really exciting to see all the kids get to play with two of their hockey heroes,” said. Tofino’s recreation programmer Laura Lunty.

Ucluelet municipal councillor Sally Mole attended the event with her son Cole and carpooled in about six other Ucluelet kids.

Sally Mole touted the event as a solid boost to outdoor activity and pick-up games.

“They see these guys on TV and to actually get to play with them is really exciting for them,” she said. “It’s huge and it’s definitely bragging rights with their cousins and their friends who don’t live in the area; they get a huge boost of confidence out of it.”

Mole’s son Cole has participated in the event since its inception.

“It’s great to get out and play hockey and meet new people,” he said adding playing alongside NHL stars is an unreal experience. “They’re one of a kind and you don’t get to see people like that very often.”

It was the event’s 5th year and Morrison assured next year will bring a 6th.

He said connecting with local youth is important and shows them anything is possible.

“We started where these kids were at one point and you never know what can come of it,” he said.

He said the “super fun” event brought many familiar faces and a slew of new ones and he noted exciting changes to the demographic.

“Having a quick glance here now it looks like we’ve got a lot of younger kids this year and a lot of girls which is phenomenal,” he said.

“It’s always a good event, there’s always some kids that are pretty competitive out there they want to test themselves against the other players and put on a good show but we’re all here to have a good time and have fun.”

Carol Curley, 12, said she loves playing road hockey in front of her home in Opitsaht and jumped at the chance to meet other local players.

“It was fun playing with the NHL stars that used to play with the Canucks and playing with kids I’ve never played with before,” she said.

After the hockey was over both Morrison and Mitchell stuck around to sign autographs and mingle with their young fans.

“They’re superstars, you don’t just see them everyday,” Curley said, beaming.