In the early winter of 2005, a group of students and co-workers played ball hockey on Parliament Hill.
Why exactly ball hockey was being played on Parliament hill has been lost to the softening of details that happens with the passage of time.
The consensus is: the idea came out of a conversation at a staff party.
Perhaps they were feeling nostalgic, or patriotic. Perhaps they wanted to live out a stereotype. Perhaps they had sticks and nets and the only place they could think to play that wouldn’t have traffic was the path between the eternal flame and the peace tower.
And so, the morning-after, the group was off. Trudging up to the Hill with sticks, nets, road hockey pads and some tennis balls; they set up, threw the sticks in a pile, and separated them to form teams.
No one is sure who won.
Over a decade later, one member of that group returns to Parliament Hill to play some hockey again. This time he played hockey on the Canada 150 rink.
This time, I was playing to help overcome trauma, with the program Solider On.
Soldier On helps anyone who has been in the Canadian Forces overcome an injury or illness by participating in sports or physical activities. Once a member of the Canadian Forces has been injured, the Soldier On mandate is to get them physically active again. Soldier On provides resources, such as grants for equipment or opportunities (like the hockey camp) to get people moving again.
“Each of the staff at Soldier On is extremely passionate about the program’s mandate,” says Petty Officer 1st Class Joe Kiraly. “[the staff] works tirelessly to provide inspirational experiences that empower and enable participant’s recoveries.
In October 2017, they sent out the call for applications to their National Hockey Camp. Members or veterans must fill out a three-page application process and send it to Solider On. Potential participants wait a couple of weeks for a response. They have to temper their anticipation and excitement – it’s a popular program. This year it got over 60 applicants for 17 spots.
Once players are selected, Petty Officer Joe Kiraly puts together the schedule and sends it out. The ever patient, ever polite Kiraly then fields emails from excited applicants asking him questions that they can probably answer themselves, but are too excited to fully read everything he’s sent.
After being accepted and waiting an eternity – which was only two weeks – the participants arrived at the hotel in Kanata, Ontario on Dec. 13, 2017. Later that day there was an administrative briefing familiar to anyone who’s ever been in the military, or attended a conference, and then they were on the bus heading to the Canadian Tire Centre. They ate at the rink, and superstitious Senators fans in attendance ate chicken parmesan to try and boost the team.
Bobby Ryan beat Henrik Lundqvist with a shot low blocker on a beautiful feed from right-winger Mark Stone. Cody Ceci got a goal, and Zack Smith buried one in five seconds into the third and the Rangers never recovered. The Senators snapped their losing streak.
The Soldier On team was back at the Canadian Tire Centre the next morning. This time, being put through their paces by Andrew Yates, the minor hockey development co-coordinator with the Senators. Most of the Soldier On team hadn’t had an actual practice – with actual drills – since childhood.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that for this group, hockey has saved lives.
In basic training everyone is taught that there is no task too meaningless, no hurdle too great to complete if it means not letting down your team. That attitude is one of the driving forces behind the military. No one who’s been in the military can really let that attitude go.
So, in a moment of weakness, or maybe on a good day, people agree to play hockey – either on a team or just for a skate at some point in the future. No matter how severe or debilitating the depression, injury or trauma – that niggling feeling of not being able to let down a team gets people out the door.
There are reams of evidence showing how physical activity is good for both mental and physical health.
After people play they feel better. And so, almost accidentally, hockey saves lives.
After practice, Soldier On participants had a tour of the Canadian Tire Centre led by Yates. He explained how a hockey club operated, giving the team a behind-the-scenes look at what exactly went into a professional hockey game.
Yates’ enforcement of rules, and giving out push-ups as both punishment and prizes in Sens trivia earned him the nickname: ‘Master Sergeant Yates.’ Not that anyone actually had to do (or did) the push-ups, but the enthusiasm for them was instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent any time in the military.
“I was surprised by the feelings that overwhelmed me during the camp. After being medically released, I felt like I had been discarded by the service, and unappreciated by my country. Anytime someone thanked me for my service, it felt like empty platitudes,” said participant Rod Allen. “To have the Ottawa Senators organization do so much for us, and to have these athletes that I have admired for years thank me for my service – it left me speechless.”
As the tour continued, the Soldier On team went to the Senators dressing room and met injured Ottawa defenseman Mark Borowiecki. He is a vocal supporter of both the military and Solider On. He gladly fielded questions from the team about what it was like to be a player in the NHL. He explained the evolution of sticks (the lighter and more flexible means they have a quicker shot, but also makes them more fragile.)
To the disappointment of many beer league players, he also said that there aren’t a lot of chirps in the NHL; most players try and keep it somewhat professional. But he did say one Senator regularly calls Patrick Kane ‘Young Money.’
Then they were back on the ice. This time being led by the Ottawa Senators Alumni President, Laurie Boschman. A couple of drills later, and they were starting a scrimmage in preparation for the next day’s game.
“Soldier On is such a needed and worthwhile Canadian Armed Forces program, supporting the physical and mental health of men and women who put their lives on the line, so we can live in freedom here in Canada,” says Boschman. “The Ottawa Senators and its alumni are honoured to play a small role to support an organization that gives them meaningful care and support.”
The night of Dec. 14, Soldier On went to the drafting of players for the Senators alumni game on Parliament hill. The two alumni teams were drafted by captains Daniel Alfredsson and Chris Phillips. They split up an all-star lineup of former Ottawa players. Once the draft was done the alumni mingled with the crowd. After selfies and signatures, Soldier On went back to the hotel to sleep. They needed to rest before game day.
In the morning, Soldier On dressed in their hotel rooms and bussed to the Hill with their skates in hand. It was a scene that wouldn’t be out of place at some early morning Timbits hockey skate anywhere else in the country.
During the skate, Phillips was talking to his fellow but more-senior alumni, Damian Rhodes on the bench.
“Hey, are you Damian Rhodes?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Rhodes.
“When I was about 10-years-old I thought you were a way better goalie than Felix Potvin. I was so mad that you weren’t the starter on the Leafs team. When you got traded I was so upset I became a Sens fan on the spot and have been one ever since.”
“You’re an old man Rhodes,” laughed Phillips.
Soldier On played for an hour: half an hour against each team.
“Having stars Alfredsson and Arvedson pass the puck around me like I was a Timbit was humbling and amazing,” said Allen. “If you think it looks fast on TV, it’s quadruple the speed when you are in the middle of it!”
After the skate, they were joined by Sens alumni like Patrick Lalime and Lance Pitlick, who told the team about good coaches and crazy coaches. They shared stories of having equipment managers that also may or may not have been running a side business of import-export in a legal grey area. Every five minutes Yates or Kiraly would pop their heads into the dressing room and say, “five more minutes guys.”
Eventually, Kiraly explained he’d agreed to wait so Soldier On could be in a picture with all the Senators, current and alumni. Skates went back on and everyone returned to the ice. All intermingling for a group photo:
“That was a nice goal on Wednesday.”
“Thanks,” said Bobby Ryan. “I’m sure you would have stoned me.”
“If I could stone you I’d be in the NHL.”
After a quick lunch, they were back on the ice. Every skate on the trip was leading to this moment: an organized game against Sens alumni. Two officials, an announcer, a national anthem.
“It was a surreal feeling to be standing on the blue-line staring at the flag above the Peace Tower during the national anthem,” said Allen. “I’m still trying to process it all, and I can’t express my gratitude to the Soldier On, the Ottawa Senators – especially Andrew – and Senators alumni enough.”
It felt like a tight game. The score ended up 9-7 for the Alumni. But whenever the score got too close the Alumni just held the puck in the Solider On zone and passed it around until the perfect scoring opportunity presented itself. The Soldier On team couldn’t touch the puck if the alumni didn’t want them to.
Saturday started as a recovery day with yoga. It ended with freezing in -20 C temperatures watching the Sens beat the Habs 3-0 at the winter classic.
And then as suddenly as it started, the week was over. The team said their goodbyes and exchanged contact information over breakfast.
“It’s hard not to be a Sens fan after this week,” said Allen at breakfast. “After the way they treated us, I’m a Sens fan for life.”