By Mary Moffat
On Saturday, April 13 Redvers & District Recreation Centre hosted the 2019 Sportsmen Dinner & Auction, with special guests Sheldon Kennedy and Dean Kennedy. The evening began with cocktails and supper, sponsored by the Bear Claw Casino, Redvers Ag Show and Redvers Oilman Show, prepared and served by P&A Meats. After the supper Sheldon Kennedy took to the stage to share his story.
Raised on a dairy farm in Elkhorn, MB, Kennedy participated in the two mainstays of Prairie sports, baseball and hockey. While many people may know his story, this evening fleshed out many details often not mentioned. Kennedy was scouted by Graham James to play for the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League in 1986 and in 1989 helped the team capture the Memorial Cup. He was then selected by the Detroit Red Wings, where he bounced between the NHL and their minor league affiliate, the Adirondack Red Wings of the American Hockey League (AHL) Kennedy joked that he probably had more arrests than goals during that time.
Although he was acquired by the Winnipeg Jets in 1993-94, the NHL lockout meant that he didn’t play for them before being picked up by the Calgary Flames. Kennedy spoke of arriving in Calgary with his wife, who was pregnant with their daughter, and coming face to face with Graham James and some of his Hitmen kids. He says he knew then that he would never be the husband and father that he wanted to be if he didn’t deal with the abuse, he had suffered at the hands of Graham James, and so in 1996 he charged his Junior Hockey Coach with sexual abuse. Two other players came forward after the initial charges and in January of 1997 Graham James pled guilty.
In 1998 Kennedy strapped on inline skates for the first time and after 136 days of skating 8,500 km. across Canada, he had raised $1.2 million which was donated to child abuse prevention programs. He and his partner, Wayne McNeill, own and operate Respect Group Inc, providing training to thousands to help prevent bullying, harassment and abuse. He also serves on the board of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre in Calgary, which house 95 professionals dedicated to assessing, treating and seeking justice for physically and sexually abused children.
In 2018, after the Humboldt Broncos tragedy, he received many calls from the media because his involvement with the Swift Current Broncos bus crash in December of 1986. Kennedy and four others went to Humboldt with the desire to take some of the pressure off the families, and to share their understanding of the thought and emotion experienced by the survivors of the accident. He spoke of Bob Wilkie, an RCMP member who attended the Swift Current crash and was also a billet for a player, and the fact that his daughter was one of the lead trauma surgeons in Saskatoon at the time of the Humboldt crash, another link between the two accidents. Kennedy spoke of their visits to hospital to offer hope and a way to move beyond the suffering, of the ability to have the hard conversations because they had been there and had found a way to move forward. He spoke of talking with Ryan Straschnitzki, who struggled with never playing hockey again because of his paralysis, and reminded him of the sledge hockey team, which Ryan is now playing.
He spoke of the members of Emergency Services and their struggles, of Nipawin Volunteer Fire Department members who were mechanics by day and heroes who were still off work because of the PTSD they suffered. He reminded us that “scars heal up but they don’t go away” and offered hope for the players who have the support that his team was denied because their coach refused to allow counselling for the players, most likely because of the fear that his misconduct would be exposed. Most importantly he reminded us that all we have to do is just show up for others.
Sheldon Kennedy was then joined by Dean Kennedy, a former Redvers Rocket, who played for Weyburn Red Wings in the SJHL, The Brandon Wheat Kings in the WHL, and in the NHL from 1982 to 1995 for the Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, Winnipeg Jets and the Edmonton Oilers.
Seated on a comfy couch, the two men reminisced about their memories of their time in minor hockey. Dean talked about the fact that they only had natural ice when he played in Redvers and they played on sloughs until there was ice in the rink. He remembers Jan Hoff had a torch and he put it to his stick, creating a huge warp and how he was able to put the puck half way up the cinderblock wall. He spoke of the coaches who were all volunteers and really didn’t know a whole lot, remembering when his dad coached and only knew that the guys needed to be in shape, so he started them with five laps around the rink, building up to 35 laps per practice for a group of 12-year-olds!
With shades of Corner Gas, Dean talked about rivalry and how they were raised to hate Storthoaks and vice versa, how everyone hated Brian Chicoine; Bellegarde not as much, and then into provincials they had to pick up four players – from Storthoaks – and how they had to love them, at least until the next year when they played opposite each other and they hated them again.
Tales about meeting their idols led to talk about how the game has changed to a more skilled game, where in playoff hockey, if you don’t perform, then you don’t play. There were comments about how difficult it must be to do the play-by-plays because every player skates the same now, and how players stayed with teams for many years, where the first line played the first line, and you knew who you played and how they skated.
The biggest changes the men talked about is the lack of emotion in the game now, which relates back to the whole hating Storthoaks thing. They shared that with so many players training together now, it makes it difficult to hack on someone you know and respect. Also noted was the fact that the “old” guys looked out for the young guys and so on, with not having electronic stats, everything was passed on from one player to the next.
Listening to all of the conversation, it was easy to see how players in the game of hockey always seem to be able to bond, no matter where they come from or what they are doing in life. It didn’t matter if you played in minor hockey or the NHL, everyone understood the rivalry and they shared love of the game, shinny or the Memorial Cup, it was all hockey.