The COVID-19 pandemic not only forced cancellation of the annual Hockey Helps The Homeless tournament in Edmonton last May, it made fundraising for The Mustard Seed and Jasper Place Wellness Centre in support of people experiencing homelessness and poverty more challenging than ever.
That’s what makes the HHTH Canada Life Cup, a virtual fundraising campaign involving teams and players denied a chance to lace up their skates for the hugely successful tournament at the Terwillegar Recreation Centre, so vital in a final push between now and September 30.
While players won’t share a dressing room or chase pucks beside Edmonton Oilers’ alumni like Georges Laraque, Glenn Anderson, Kelly Buchberger and Ethan Moreau as in years past, there are 18 teams competing to see who can raise the most money. The overall goal is $150,000, with all the funds raised staying in Edmonton and being split equally between The Mustard Seed and JPWC.
“At the end of the day, we use hockey as a way to fulfil our mission,” HHTH executive director Ryan Baillie said. “Our mission is to raise funds for those experiencing homelessness. When we realized we couldn’t do that through a live tournament we knew we’d have to be creative. We’re going to have to continue to be creative.”
As the HHTH saying goes, This Game Matters, even if the game looks distinctly different this year – and maybe from this point forward. COVID-19 has been a game changer in so many ways and HHTH has responded since the live tournament in May was cancelled. There’s been a Stay the Puck Home t-shirt campaign and an ongoing mask campaign. Now, the Canada Life Cup.
“We’re in this for the long haul here,” Baillie said. “Life’s not going to return back to the previous version of normal that we’re all accustomed to right away. Homelessness doesn’t stop, but neither will we.
“If you’re looking for a silver lining, here it is because we’ve freed up some resources to try some different things. We’ve got lots of other ideas. It’s just a matter of us short-listing and prioritizing how some of these things will look. The reality is COVID has given us the opportunity to test some things. It’s provided us an opportunity to improvise and innovate.”
In all, four HHTH tournaments – in Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal and London – were cancelled. The result, in tandem with job losses and the economy grinding to a halt across the country, has been a significant decrease in revenue and donations that make it possible for The Mustard Seed and JPWC to do their work.
At the same time, demand for basic necessities as well as services like housing, health care, food security, employment programs and education are at an all-time high for Edmonton’s most vulnerable.
“One of the biggest challenges we’re facing, what the fund-raising helps, is acquiring space,” TMS program director Kris Knutson said. “Given the new realities of social distancing, how close people can be, all the drop-in spaces in Edmonton have had their capacities cut by at least 50 per cent if not closer to 60-75 per cent.
“As we all know in Edmonton, winter is coming. Where will people go once winter hits? Even just trying to acquire new space for the winter where people can find respite from the cold, that’s one of our biggest needs.
“We’re working toward something on the southside because it’s the most under-served portion of the city. We’re working in partnership with our governments. all three levels. We probably need 15,000 square feet of space to provide emergency respite services for the homeless south of the river. That would serve about 120 (people).”
Aside from seeking new space before winter, TMS is operating a lunch program that serves about 150 clients three days a week at The Neighbour Centre in Old Strathcona and is delivering another 1,200 meals a week throughout the community. TMS is also in the construction stage at a new location for its Mosaic Centre.
“We’re seeing an increase in food bank use, an increase in people needing meals, an increase in just about all of our services,” said Knutson. “As quickly as we’re trying to house people, people are falling out of housing because they’ve lost their incomes . . . when the weather changes it’s going to have a huge impact.”
At the 2019 HHTH tournament, Matt Kassian, an Edmontonian who played with the Minnesota Wild and Ottawa Senators, put on his pads with more than 30 other pros and helped to raise $230,000 for The Mustard Seed and JPWC.
“At the best of times, it’s always a challenge for organizations like The Mustard Seed to do what needs to be done for people who are in need of assistance,” Kassian said.
“When you have an increase in the number of people who are experiencing issues because of lack of work, emotional and mental trauma brought on by COVID, and you lack the ability to provide help because you don’t have the financial means to do so because you’ve lost a significant fund-raising event, the impact just multiplies.”
This year, Kassian is part of a live bubble hockey tournament being hosted by Keyera in Fort Saskatchewan on Sept. 10 as a fundraiser for the Canada Life Cup. Think of it as table-top hockey with human players – Keyera employees – with each player limited to specific circles on the playing surface.
“This speaks to the resilience of people,” Kassian said. “There are people who recognize there are needs out there, that something can be done. It’s not just about having fun. It’s great being able to do something for a cause and have a good time, but it’s not about the fun, it’s about the cause.
“We can’t do what we normally would do, which may not be as fun as it normally would be, but we’re going to rise above that and we’re going to find any way we can to get the job done . . . it’s like an old sports cliché -- in the dressing room, you talk about being willing to block a shot with your face if it means you’re going to win. You take the hit to make the play.”
“That cliché applies to situations like this. For events like this, where you’re finding a way, that’s what you’re doing – you’re blocking a shot with your face, finding a way to win. It’s like this bubble hockey thing. It’s amazing and it makes me proud to be a part of it, proud to see people stepping up.”
Teams in the Canada Life Cup are competing for a wide range of individual and team incentives, based on how much money they can raise. Top team incentives include a round of golf or a dinner night for the whole team with a pro.
“Just because of what’s going on right now doesn’t mean we can’t still support and help people,” said Joshua Simpson, regional director for Canada Life. “We’ve had to find a new way to do it.
“Moving forward, I’m sure we’re still going to have the hockey event itself, but this is going to bring some changes to the way we do HHTH. That’s going to be very positive. The impact COVID is having on our community with homelessness and mental health, fundraising is more important now than ever. I feel like our people understand that.”
Donating to the event or sponsoring a specific player or team is easy. People who are interested in getting in the game can click here to donate or register.