Three years ago, Kevin Hodgson made a promise he was intent on keeping.
He told a family that he’d find a hockey program in Calgary for their child with autism. After all, hockey is for everyone and there had to be something.
“Good or bad, I said to the parents it just means you haven’t found it yet, it has to be out there. If it’s not, we’ll start something,” said Hodgson, the executive director of Hockey Education Reaching Out Society (HEROS) Hockey Foundation.
The organization had been providing hockey opportunities for kids with social and financial barriers since 2000 but Hodgon came to realize at that moment some kids were falling through the cracks.
The SuperHEROS program was born in 2018 and will arrive in central Alberta in the fall, giving kids with physical and cognitive challenges a chance to participate in a modified hockey program.
“It’s making sure kids 7-17 who live with physical and cognitive challenges that keep them out of hockey and sports and community activities, have a place to play. Have a place to be included and have a place to be accepted by the game of hockey,” Hodgson said.
Through support from the AJHL’s newest franchise – the Blackfalds Bulldogs, as well as the Red Deer Rebels and others in the community, Hodgson is confident they’ll find success with the expansion into central Alberta.
“The very first people to jump on board to support us were the Sutter family and just said one day, make sure you bring it to Red Deer. We just kept hearing that central Alberta needed it,” Hodgson said, adding central Alberta will be their seventh team in Western Canada.
“Then when the Bulldogs came on the scene, they seemed like a natural group to work with to try to make this happen. We figured if one team was coming, we might as well see if another team can tag along, too.”
Hodgson noted they’ve got kids who regularly make a three-hour round trip to Calgary just for sessions, so it makes sense to add one in between Edmonton and Calgary.
The @Rebelshockey have always wanted to see #SuperHEROS come to Central Alberta, and we are very honoured to have their help making it possible this fall.
Can't wait to see our players hit the ice in Blackfalds this fall!! #BiggerThanHockey #inclusion #ourteamisgrowing pic.twitter.com/syP5ismetG
— HEROS Hockey (@heroshockey) May 6, 2021
Whatever the kids need to get on the ice, whether it’s a teddy bear as a puck because of a certain sensitivity, adaptive equipment or simply skating laps for an hour – where there’s an interest, there’s a way.
“Hockey has expected the kids to adapt to meet the traditional hockey structure, we believe the exact opposite. We believe it’s our responsibility to adapt the game to the needs and abilities of the players,” Hodgson said.
“This isn’t a real-life Mighty Ducks movie. It’s taking the best parts of the game and then adapting it to make sure the players that are going to play know that the game welcomes them, that they get to call themselves hockey players.
“At the end of the day, they go home every week feeling like they’ve played the game and they’re no different than the Blackfalds Bulldogs or Red Deer Rebels.”
Since they started, everything has come together relatively smoothly but it’s the connections and emotions from the players, parents and volunteers that make it easy to keep going.
“In the province, I’ve got close to 50 volunteers and every one of them will tell you they learn more from the kids than the kids learn from them,” he said.
“These athletes that we’re working with, all they want is to belong and call themselves hockey players. They’ve been waiting far too long to be able to do that. It’s pretty powerful to watch a parent who had long ago given up on being able to call themselves a hockey parent, getting to do that.”
Hodgson hopes down the road they can use central Alberta as a regional hub to bring teams together from across the province.
For now, they’re looking for volunteers and trying to find those families with kids who had given up on the idea of ever playing hockey.
Visit heroshockey.com for more information.