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27 Jan, Friday
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Montreal Families

Program teaches hockey skills to underprivileged kids

Sunday mornings at Ed Meagher Arena in N.D.G. are a buzz of excitement. In the dressing rooms, children as young as 4 are getting help from parents and volunteers as they lace up skates, shimmy into jerseys, and buckle helmets for their early morning ice time. The kids are part of the Avalanche Kidz Hockey Program, a developmental learn-to-skate program for children between the ages of 4 and 11 that aims to get everyone on the ice — no matter their physical ability or financial situation.

An inclusive hockey program

Started in 2022, the program was created by Vinnie Matteo, his daughter Linda Matteo, and Ariel Davidson after Davidson couldn’t find a hockey program for her special needs son. Interest from the community was swift, with 30 children starting on the ice in September and reaching 50 by December.

Based on inclusion, diversity, and equality, the program caters to children with special needs and those from underprivileged families. “We can definitely see that there’s a need for this,” says Avalanche vice president and head coach Linda Matteo. “We started off in March as a pilot program, getting a feel of what the community needed and wanted, and there was an outpouring of interested children.”

Divided into two classes based on age, children are outfitted with hockey equipment including shin and elbow pads, helmets, and chest and neck protectors. The program teaches the children to skate as well as introduces them to hockey skills. “We started off at the beginning of our program with just the mandatory equipment that they needed, and within a session or two, the kids were fully equipped using sticks, playing with pucks, and they got the hang of it very quickly. We had really supportive parents and the community came together to pitch in for whatever we needed. It’s really nice to see.”

A hockey player for 25 years, Linda Matteo has seen the positive impacts that sports can have on children, as well as the people working with them. Besides the physical benefits the kids experience during their time on the ice, the kids have positive role models in the adults and youth who volunteer their time. “Not only is our program about inclusion, but it is also about mentorship, which gives students the privilege of helping out these younger children, almost like a big brother, big sister situation.” High school students from Trafalgar, LCC, Sacred Heart, and Bialik have all helped out on and off the ice. Matteo notes how the female high school volunteers have developed connections with the younger girls, serving as role models and helping ignite a passion for the sport. “My mission is to get as many girls in hockey as possible,” Matteo said. “I’m a female hockey player myself, so I push it as much as I can.”

Help is needed

Youth participation in hockey has been steadily declining across Canada in the past few years. Hockey Canada saw a six per cent drop in the number of players in 2019-202 from the year before, and Hockey Quebec statistics show that membership has decreased by 28 per cent over the past seven years, and 13 per cent between 2019 and 2021. The pause during the pandemic did not help the situation, with accessibility to the game for low-income families also cited as a barrier to the sport.

While business sponsors have helped procure much-needed items like coats and boots for the program’s families — many of whom are new to Canada — costs to run the hockey program are expensive, with ice rental fees and equipment straining their limited resources. “What we’re looking for right now is financial aid and people who can assist in the program,” Matteo says. Volunteers are always needed, as is a space close to the arena to store their equipment.

Upcoming events

A website for the program is in the works, and a Facebook page keeps volunteers and players updated on activities and fundraising efforts. The current season runs until April 2023, with registration for next September set to begin this summer. Registration fees for the Avalanche program are dependent on each family’s situation.

As they work to expand the program to include more children, Matteo is elated with what she sees at the rink. “I love it when I see my parents cheering on their little skaters, and families from all backgrounds talking with each other and connecting. When I turn around and look at the stands, I just smile because this is what it’s all about.”

Visit Avalanche Kidz Hockey Development on Facebook to learn more about the program. Those interested in offering support or financial donations can contact Linda Matteo at 514-969-6987 or linda_matteo@hotmail.com.

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