Saint John hockey program for at-risk youth gives players a shot on the ice

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Saint John hockey program for at-risk youth gives players a shot on the ice

A Saint John hockey program is helping at-risk youth by teaching them how to make goals — both in and outside the arena.

Top Corner Hockey Saint John is a local program that teaches youth, who otherwise wouldn't get the chance, to play one of Canada's most beloved sports.

"Every kid in our program has zero to very minimum home support," said Chris Green, one of the organizers at Top Corner Hockey. "[But] all the hockey is completely free."

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The program is divided into two tiers based on age. The hope is to train players up to a level where they can enter mainstream minor-league hockey, which is also paid for by Top Corner.

Green said all 50 of his players come from challenging upbringings. Many of the young athletes would be in protective foster care, Green said, and others would be considered financially at-risk.

Alex Firlotte, 17, has since graduated from the program but still gives back by volunteering.

He was raised by a single mother, and while he said he was lucky to have a father figure in his life, there were five children to support at home.

Firlotte said that before Green came along with Top Corner Hockey, he never had the chance to play organized sports.

"It taught us leadership and how to work with others," said the Grade 12 student.

"It taught us responsibility. It gave us life skills, even more than what we should have as kids."

Hockey teaches values

But the program comes at a price.

Every year it costs between $20,000 and $25,000 to run a program like Top Corner Hockey, which also receives financial support through sponsorships and government grants.

"If you look at the transportation, ice fees, insurance for the kids, Hockey New Brunswick registration, gear maintenance — there's all kinds of little fees."

There's no paid staff and the coach still has to hire a bus to ensure the players can make it to practice every week.

But organizers feel it's all worth it in the end.

"If we can take kids and teach them good community values through hockey, I think we'll be better off as a community."

Recently, the Saint John program has also received its own claim to fame. 

Hockey Canada flew in camera crew from Calgary to film a video about the team for the national association's website.

Not too long ago, Green also woke up to find a surprise waiting for him in his home mailbox.

Last spring, the coach submitted an application through the Canadian Tire Jumpstart program for new hockey equipment that would be provided by Reebok.

The Canadian Tire charity aims to give kids from families in financial need, a chance to play sports.

"I thought it was half a joke. I made an unrealistic ask," he said "But it just showed up."

Three teams from across Canada were selected to receive financial help from the charity, including a team in Nunavut and northern Quebec. But the largest share came to New Brunswick and was worth about $65,000.

"Now our kids are wearing brand new equipment," he said. "They look like a Triple A team."

And while the Saint John hockey program focuses on improving players' hockey skills, it's also evolved into something much bigger.

"It's kind of morphed more into [a] youth wellness initiative," said Green. "We've ventured into other things, like we take the kids to play rugby, we take them swimming."

"We've ventured outside of the rink."