Hundreds of kids living in Ottawa’s most populated community housing neighbourhood will now have the opportunity to learn a variety of sports at the Rideau Sports Centre as a result of a sold-out fundraising gala held Wednesday with the Ottawa 67’s.
Mayor Jim Watson was at the benefit, held at the Rideau Sports Centre at 1 Donald St. So was Ottawa Sports Commissioner Mathieu Fleury, who’s also the city councillor for Lowertown, Sandy Hill and Vanier, and board chair of Ottawa Community Housing (OCH).
The evening reached its fundraising goal of $20,000 to help the OCH Foundation provide after-school sports activities to youth living in the underserved community of Strathcona Heights, located in Sandy Hill. “It’s really about removing barriers to participating in sports in our community,” Fleury said during his brief remarks.
Talk Hockey focused on a sport that remains the most popular among red-and-white-blooded Canadians everywhere. The evening included fun hockey trivia and an insightful question-and-answer session, led by Ottawa 67’s voice Kenny Walls, with members of the top-ranked OHL hockey team.
The $75-a-ticket lasagna dinner offered insight into the role athletics plays in teaching children about mutual respect, leadership, discipline and hard work. Attendees included the heads of Ottawa minor hockey associations, as well as boys and girls who play minor league hockey. All guests got a free ticket to an upcoming 67's game.
The gala was organized by a group of budding community leaders and chaired by Chris Bockstael. He's a financial planner with ONELIFE Wealth Management and an Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club member who previously earned himself a golf scholarship to the University of South Alabama.
He was joined on the organizing committee by Patrick Champagne, executive assistant to the mayor; David Gaylord from Shopify; and high school teacher Zach Quevillon, who’s also a program director with the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club. The Ottawa Lions club, along with varsity athletes from the University of Ottawa, have agreed to help run the after-school sports program for the Strathcona Heights youth.
The after-school activities will take place at the four-acre Rideau Sports Centre, located along the Rideau River and easily accessible from Strathcona Heights via a pedestrian bridge. The centre — formerly the Rideau Tennis Club — has been working toward establishing itself as a welcoming and inclusive community hub. It recently invested $2 million in the clubhouse and sports facility, and is now promoting its new restaurant, wedding venue and conference space. “This is a place to call your home,” said CEO Nicki Bridgland, who was joined at the dinner by her general manager, Donna Ringrose.
Serving as an advisor for the inaugural gala was Dr. Nalin Bhargava. He's the brains behind numerous Ottawa charity galas that he's voluntarily helped to create and run. He's also the team dentist for OSEG's sports teams (Ottawa 67's, Ottawa Redblacks and Ottawa Fury FC) and is a past president of the Ottawa Girls Hockey Association. Its current president, James Wojtyk, supported the cause with a strong showing of female players.
Ottawa 67’s owner Jeff Hunt attended, as did the team’s general manager, James Boyd, and head coach, André Tourigny, strength and conditioning coach Sean Young and head athletic therapist Dan Marynowski. From the team were players: Noel Hoefenmayer, Quinn Yule, Sam Bitten, Lucas Chiodo, Lucas Peric and Cedric Andree.
The audience got the inside scoop on what skills and qualities 67's management look for in a hockey player. It’s not the biggest and strongest player," said Boyd. “It’s players who can skate fast, who are mobile, and who are willing to move the puck to their teammates.”
The room heard how the players all grew up with a love and passion for hockey. Interestingly, it wasn’t a hockey stick that Sam Bitten first learned to handle. It was a badminton racket. Both his parents went to the Olympics for badminton and had him learning the sport almost before he could walk. Once he discovered hockey, however, he chose the ice rink over the badminton court.
“For me, I just fell in love with hockey ever since I first started to play,” said the Ottawa native, who was previously with the Leitrim Hawks, followed by the Junior 67’s.
The players also talked about the strong friendship bond that they share with each other. Some of the guys get together Monday nights to watch the romance-based television series The Bachelor.
The athletes were asked whether they had any career aspirations, besides hockey, when they were growing up. Andree recalled being asked this question by his parents, and telling them about how he really wanted to play hockey. When they pushed him further, and inquired as to what his back-up plan might be, his response was: pro soccer. "I didn't know if that was any more achievable but I was stuck and didn't know what to say," Andree explained.
Special guests included former NFL player Christo Bilukidi, 29. He grew up in Ottawa Community Housing's Russell Heights neighbourhood in a single-parent, immigrant household, before getting a football scholarship to Georgia State University. He enjoyed a four-year career in the NFL before retiring and returning to Ottawa.
Bilukidi regularly gives motivational talks to young people through his current role as an ambassador for OCH. “It doesn’t matter where you come from, if you’re from an OCH community or from an affluent community, you can achieve whatever you want to achieve, as long as you put your mind to it, as long as you put in the effort, as long as you stay positive and motivated, and continue striving to be great,” Bilukidi told the room.