“Bringing hope to our communities through the game of hockey.” This is the slogan for Brenden Biedermann’s Hockey Camp of Hope (HCH), a professional hockey camp founded by Biedermann and his friend David Cheechoo.
The two both experienced first-hand the obstacles faced by First Nations youth growing up in difficult situations in remote communities (Biedermann hails from Moose Factory, Ontario and Cheechoo from Waskaganish, Quebec). They’ve spent the past few years doing their part to empower the younger Cree generation, instilling positive values and offering the support and leadership teenagers need to succeed both on and off the ice.
Four years ago, Biedermann and Cheechoo got together with Barrett Leganchuk, a former Junior A coach and scout for the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets since 2012. All three men have an extensive hockey background as players, coaches and trainers and strongly believe that their involvement in the sport kept them out of trouble when they were kids.
Biedermann and Cheechoo’s training team is rounded out by Steve Cheechoo, coach of the Cree Nation Bears and one of the directors of the National Aboriginal Hockey Championships, Jordan Cheechoo, who also coaches with the Bears and works with Waswanipi’s minor hockey program, Adam Wowchuk, goalie instructor and former Junior A and AAA goalie, and Mervin Cheechoo, mentor and workshop facilitator.
It’s better to be in a rink on a Friday or a Saturday night than out roaming the streets, Bidermann emphasized.
“We all played the game at fairly high levels and most of us grew up living in Native communities,” he said. “Hockey is our number-one sport so we put our heads together and thought about how we could address the different problems kids are facing, getting sucked into things like drugs and alcohol and abuse. We use hockey as a platform to help them stay off the streets and out of trouble and we encourage them that if they do get into trouble, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help.”
The Hockey Camp of Hope offers programs in Moose Factory and Waskaganish. They recently ran an elite camp July 12-18 in Sudbury that attracted AA, AAA and Junior A players from Aboriginal communities in both Ontario and Quebec.
A typical day at camp consists of 90 minutes on the ice working fundamentals like skating, shooting, passing, stickhandling and team play, followed by dry-land training that involves cardio and weightlifting and baseball. Participants get a break to relax before an evening of workshops and occasionally being provided a meal.
At the elite event, ran by coaches with experience in the NHL, AHL and NCAA, a major focus is developing leadership skills amongst the teenagers.
Biedermann noted that a lot of talented athletes who compete in Val-d’Or were in attendance at last month’s camp in Sudbury.
“These guys are the ones that everyone looks up to, the ones that have a chance to go into the OHL or the Quebec Majors. We want to let them know that they need to make smart choices and that there’s a hundred other eyes watching them and how they handle themselves. We want them to follow their dream, but we also want them to take good care of themselves along the way.”
Off-ice workshops are a big part of what the Hockey Camp of Hope offers. Biedermann and his staff help prepare players and parents for the challenges they face both in the arena and in everyday life.
“We talk about things like mental toughness,” he said. “How to keep going when it feels like the whole world is against you, whether it’s a tough day at home, at school or at the rink. We share our own experiences at this camp. Most of us have been caught up in that lifestyle of drugs and alcohol at one time or another and some of our people are really trapped in that struggle.”
He added that they strongly encourage parental involvement and try to speak to the parents when they’re at the rink.
Biedermann hopes to continue to expand the Hockey Camp of Hope’s operations into other areas of Eeyou Istchee.
“It’s fun, we enjoy it,” he said. “We want to do anything we can to help these kids. You would have a hard time finding a group of individuals who care more for these kids. They’re our neighbours and our relatives. It’s a relationship we’ve built with the communities over the years that we want to keep building.”
He mentioned that the camp would like to expand to Wemindji and Mistissini.
“We try to be available whenever we can: fall, winter and summer. We can do weekend camps, whatever we’re asked to do. If somebody’s interested we’ll do everything in our power to make it happen. We don’t want to be just a hockey camp, we want to offer a service for the kids and for the rest of the community as well.”
In the last two years in Waskaganish, HCH has drawn in over 100 participants aged 13 and up.
Anyone interested in the Camp of Hope can visit www.hcoh.ca or call Biedermann at 705-658-2239 or Dave Cheechoo at 819-895-4164.
“We’re always open to have more helping hands and we’re always willing to lend a hand to work with any of the communities in the Cree Nation,” said Biedermann. “We’ll go above and beyond to work with the communities.”