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Sharon Fung makes sure Hockey IS for everyone

“I was actually scared to death, because I had this amazing idea, and I knew I was going to do it, but I didn’t know anything about hockey or how to start a community program.”

“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.

“Hockey is for everyone” is a slogan and program the National Hockey League has been running since 1998. The goal is to bring the game to more diverse communities and teach values such as dedication, perseverance, and teamwork and within the last several years the slogan has really taken on a meaning of promoting gender and racial equality as well.

From a grassroots standpoint that also means providing an opportunity for kids to play who have developmental disabilities.

In 2007 Sharon Fung wanted to find an outlet for her son Nick.to play

“He’s on the Autism spectrum,” says Fung.

“But he had a passion for hockey, he had always wanted to be a goalie. So, when he was eight years old, we got the okay from West Ferris Minor Hockey to put him down a level because based on his motor skills and social skills, we knew he would have to be with younger kids. We did that for two years and by the time he was 10, it was clear to me it wasn’t going to work and it was just going to be frustrating for him and the coaches because he wasn’t going to get what he wanted out of playing hockey.”

Fung adds, “The coaches were great, and the organization was amazing too, they really tried to work with him, but because it starts to get pretty competitive by that point, there were just going to be too many challenges for him.”

That’s when Fung decided to look elsewhere, thinking that Nick couldn’t be the only kid with autism or another developmental disability that wanted to play hockey.

“I of course knew about the Special Olympics programs and so I wondered if there was anything like that for ice hockey.”

Online, Fung discovered Special Hockey International, which had teams in southern Ontario and in the USA.

“I connected with a couple of teams, including the ones in Durham and Orangeville,” says Fung.

“That’s how the idea got started and I just said, ‘we’re going to do this no matter what it takes.’”

A sports story ran in the North Bay Nugget seeking interest from parents and children to see how many people in the community might want to be a part of a program.

“Dave Washington contacted me after he read that, and he had been involved in a similar program when he lived in Brampton and so we quickly put together a business plan. We approached West Ferris Minor Hockey in September of 2007 to present our idea and by October we were on the ice.”

And it wasn’t just a handful of participants during that first foray onto the ice. Fung says, “We had 21 players who all jumped in and were just so excited to play hockey.”

That excitement was how the North Bay North Stars were able to go from an idea to a reality that is still growing, 14 years later.

“It was really amazing how quickly it happened but also great to see how much everyone bought into it,” she adds.

Even before the story was posted, Fung had a feeling there was going to be a warm reception to the idea.

“With Nick being in a special education class, I went to some of the teachers and members of the education board asking if they knew of any students in their programs that might be interested in this, and right away I had 14 names,” says Fung.

However, Fung admits that just because there was interest, didn’t mean the program was going to be successful.

“I had no idea what I was getting into,” she says laughing.

“I was actually scared to death, because I had this amazing idea, and I knew I was going to do it, but I didn’t know anything about hockey or how to start a community program.”

“Fortunately, Dave came along,” she says.

“He had more experience with the actual program and how to put together the business plan and the two of us worked really well together.”

Fung says they discovered they had something truly unique on their hands when not only did those 21 individuals and their families show up for that first practice, but also from the support the community showed towards the program.

“Jim Hall was the President of West Ferris Minor Hockey at that time and he showed up with a box of jerseys and socks for all the players, and that’s when I knew, this thing is going to be successful.”

The program has changed over the 14 years since that point as Fung describes the first year of practices, the rink was split.

“All the special education high school classes would skate at Memorial Gardens, so they would have half the rink for kids to just skate, and the other half was for a little scrimmage, and it’s grown to us having three teams.”

The three teams are based on skill and not age.

Fung says there is no age limit and therefore you can have players from the ages of 12 all the way to 40 playing on the same teams.

She says at the first skate of every season there is a skills assessment done and then the players are split up with the faster and more skilled players going to the A team with those players who are newer to the game or looking for something a little less competitive go on to the intermediate team.

Fung says, “two years ago we got a grant from the GoodLife Foundation because we were getting interest from kids that were as young as six that were coming out to watch, but they were a little frightened at the fact that the players were much older and bigger than them. So, with the money we were able to put together a beginner style team of kids that were very new, some are just putting on their skates for the first time when they join this program, but that’s the purpose of this specific team.”

Excited and appreciative are the way Fung describes how the parents and the kids feel when they find out there is a program in North Bay that can cater to their needs.

“We’ve had about 10 to 12 kids in the last two years playing through that beginner program who all have Autism,” says Fung.

“So, you take these kids who are just having trouble fitting into any kind of social group and we’re able to give them that outlet on an ice rink. Parents are in tears sometimes because they are grateful that their child has something to go to where their child is going to be welcomed. They are accepted, they get the help they need, they don’t have to fight for the extra attention or coaching.”

Fung says the development team also acts as a feeder team to their intermediate level, which helps fill that gap from having kids who may have never skated before to playing in actual games and scrimmages.

She also says, “We have one on one coaching and assistance on the ice with every single one of the players and those are all volunteers who come out.”

Fung says that is the most labour-intensive aspect of the program, “We have three head coaches who are there for three hours on Sunday afternoons to run the A and B practice from 2 p.m.- 4 .p.m and then they do an hour with the Shooting Stars beginner program. Then we get a bunch of teenagers, high school students, Nipissing students, and Canadore students that come out and help. And this year we had a partnership with one of the North Bay Ice Boltz teams that would send four of their players every week to come out and help. Because you really can’t have enough help when you’re running this program.”

She adds, “I feel like the girls with the Ice Boltz and all the volunteers actually get just as much out of this as our players do because they are learning. They learn acceptance, and compassion, and empathy and they learn that hockey can be fun. It doesn’t have to be competitive or high stakes it can be a game that is just played for fun and they get that by seeing just how much fun our players have with this program.”

The feedback from those who volunteer has been so positive that Fung says they often have a waiting list for people who want to help.

Fung says there are others who benefit from the program to, and that is the parents of the kids who are signed up for the North Bay North Stars, “We actually encourage the parents not to come on to the ice because, very often, those parents need a bit of a break. So we tell them just to sit back and watch their child have a good time and they love it.”

And the feedback from the parents has been nothing short of gratefulness that their child has somewhere to go where they can be a part of a team.

“They just can’t believe how positive it is and how much their child loves it. When they get on the ice and are doing something they love and are supported properly, we don’t see those negative behaviours. They are just out there having fun and being treated like any other hockey player on the ice.”

Both Fung and Washington (as well as the other coaches) have no doubt put their heart and soul into this program. So much so they were recognized as co-recipients for the Kiwanis Citizen of the Year in 2016. Fung admits she never thought her life would go down this path, but it is amazing to see what some parents will do for their kids, and she just wanted to find a place for her son to play hockey.

See: Special Needs hockey advocates named co-citizens of the year

“No, never, I was never even a fan of hockey,” she says when asked if she thought she would be this heavily involved in the sport.

“Nick dragged me into it,” she says laughing. “But I love the game now.”

Fung says, “What I love is really the support everyone involved has for each other. The way the coaches talk to each other and match lines to make it as even as possible, they try to make it so that everybody feels good when they come of the ice. Those players feel like they are part of a team and they carry those friendships with them outside of the rink.”

They also have a high profile within the community.

“Everyone knows them now,” Fung says. “They get a lot of exposure around town, whether they are wearing their jerseys out in public, or they are at the rink watching the Nipissing Lakers or the North Bay Battalion play.”

“I used to have to explain what the program was, but now it's just one of those things people here recognize.”

The program is now headed under a new President (Denis Ouellette) and Vice-President (Amy Lake) as Fung and Washington have taken a step back to, as Fung says, “get some new ideas for the program and keep the ball rolling.”

She says they are also looking for a Head Coach for the Shooting Stars program and if there is anyone who is seriously interested in committing to the program, they should contact her to discuss what that role involves.

Fung says every citizen in North Bay should at some point watch a North Bay North Stars game or practice to really get a sense of what this program means to those involved.

“You just can’t explain to people the joy you get out of watching these kids and adults who have so many difficulties in everyday life. But here they are, on the ice, playing the game they love. It brings you to tears sometimes just seeing that level of cooperation that you don’t normally see in hockey. It is completely heart-warming, and it wins you over every single time.” 

If you have a story suggestion for the “Rooted” series, send Matt an email at matthew.sookram@rci.rogers.com