By Mark Colley
Graham McWaters is a busy man.
He’s constantly planning his next moving truck rental, driving to hockey equipment donation events, packing up all the gear, taking the fresh truckload back to storage, then repeating it all again, sometimes the very next day. Not to mention coordinating how he’s going to get all the equipment off to its intended recipients in often-remote Indigenous communities.
“I feel like I’m Santa Claus,” McWaters says in an interview with Ottawa Sports Pages while driving to Bill Crothers Secondary School in Markham to pick up more equipment. “I’ve got all these helpers all over the place creating the activity to get the equipment, then we bring it somewhere.”
McWaters is the engine behind the Indigenous Hockey Equipment Drive, which will touch down for the first time in Ottawa on May 27 at Sandy Hill Arena. The Ottawa Girls’ Hockey Association organized the drive alongside McWaters, the leader of the initiative for Their Opportunity, an organization devoted to improving access to sport.
The OGHA is also spreading the word about the drive through the other local girls’ hockey associations, with an eye on collecting 100 to 200 full bags of used hockey gear.
The Indigenous Hockey Equipment Drive began nearly a decade ago, when McWaters attended a U16 tournament with his son in Midland, Ont. Waiting for his son to come out of the dressing room, McWaters saw Indigenous youth entering the rink with garbage bags for hockey bags. He also saw a father fixing a helmet without a mask.
“That gave me a signal that maybe these guys could use some help,” said McWaters, who is semi-retired.
Help he has. Since the first drive in 2015, when eight bags of equipment were donated to the Beausoleil First Nation on Christian Island, the program has snowballed into a behemoth of organization and coordination.
Inundated with requests for drives from across the province, McWaters gathers 1,000 bags of equipment each year. Now, he’s running out of space to store it all.
By the time the Ottawa drive is done, McWaters predicts his storage locker in Barrie will be filled with upwards of 1,800 pairs of skates. Other storage spaces are already packed with helmets, sticks, goalie equipment and more.
McWaters is careful to collect equipment that is safe and hygienic. The drive doesn’t accept undergarments, socks or jerseys, as well as equipment that is cracked or moldy.
The efforts of the Indigenous Hockey Equipment Drive are aimed at tackling a larger issue. The cost of equipment to play hockey can be prohibitive, with new gear ranging from $500 to $2,000, depending on a child’s age, highlights McWaters.
“If you can give someone that equipment and help them get into sports, there’s nothing better than that,” he adds. “We’ve got children playing hockey that have never played before, or skating that have never skated before. (It benefits) their wellness, their camaraderie, their health. They’re probably doing better in school.”
OGHA marketing and programs director Marc Lugert heard about some of the work the Indigenous Hockey Equipment Drive was doing in the Toronto area, and wanted to organize the first drive in Ottawa.
Lugert is keenly aware of the costs associated with playing minor hockey. Lugert says that despite the OGHA having the lowest fees in the area, parents are often “appalled by the costs” of playing.
The costs are rooted in ice rental fees, which the City of Ottawa is currently increasing, Lugert details, and it doesn’t help that sponsorships are hard to land and most associations aren’t registered charities, so they can’t give out tax receipts for donations.
With costs amplified and greater barriers to participate in hockey in remote Indigenous communities, Lugert wanted to give parents an opportunity to help.
“I have a feeling that one’s gonna be a huge, huge event,” McWaters says of the Ottawa drive, noting that he finds fuel for the work he does from the fact that he often gets three sets of thank yous.
“First the players or parents say thank you for taking our old equipment and putting it to good use, then I get a thank you from the organizers for making the opportunity possible, and then the Indigenous communities are very thankful to be getting the equipment so more kids can play,” he signals.
“That’s always really special to see how excited they are when they get the gear, and for everyone to know they played a part in it.”
Players who would like to donate gear to the Indigenous Hockey Equipment Drive can drop it off between 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Saturday, May 27 at Sandy Hill Arena. More information is available at https://www.theiropportunity.com/indigenoushockeyequipmentdrive
– with files from Dan Plouffe
This article is part of the Ottawa Sports Pages’ weekly Inclusion in Sport series. Read more about local sport inclusion initiatives at: OttawaSportsPages.ca/Ottawa-Sports-Pages-Inclusion-In-Sport-Series/.
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