Younger players taking NHLPA G&D to new heights amid 20th anniversary

After getting into their hockey equipment, participants of the Toronto Police Service hockey program were asked to gather in front of a door at John Booth Arena for a little surprise.

After getting into their hockey equipment, participants from the Toronto Police Service hockey program were asked to gather in front of a door at John Booth Arena for a little surprise.

Standing behind the door were William Nylander, Zach Hyman and Frédérik Gauthier ready to greet the kids. As they emerged, the excitement took over as the Toronto Maple Leafs players were welcomed with a big ovation before they went behind the bench as the kids took the ice.

Since November 2019, the program’s participants have been using 75 sets of brand-new equipment donated by the NHLPA Goals & Dreams program (also known as G&D). They are just a fraction of the 80,000 children across 34 countries who have benefited from the players’ charitable program, which has contributed over $25 million to help grow the game since 1999.

Getting new hockey equipment provides these children with valuable tools that allows them to participate in a game that has deep tradition and physical benefits, while they also develop life skills that will hopefully last a lifetime.

Like any professional athlete, NHL players have the unique challenge to be key contributors in their sport. In addition to stepping up on the ice, there’s no shortage of players helping make the game of hockey available to as many communities as possible at the grassroots level through G&D.

Over the past 20 years of the program’s existence, Devin Smith has witnessed firsthand how each generation of NHL players has embraced the significant role they play in ensuring its legacy continues strong. What has changed the most, according to the NHLPA Goals & Dreams Chairman, is that the players are getting involved earlier than in past years.

“The players are always eager to come out and be part of it. I think one of the things that we've really tried to do, and the players have embraced it, is that we get players to come out when they are younger,” Smith explained. “They're attached to the program at an earlier age because they are coming into the league at 18, or 19, where it used to be a bit later and older.”

While the donations are a key part of the program, it goes deeper than that. The players make it a point to develop a deep connection with the participants and Smith believes that positive impact can last a lifetime.

“We've morphed our programs to prioritize that interaction where we have the ability for a kid to connect on a one-on-one basis with the player,” said Smith. “There's the opportunity for a young hockey player, boy or girl, to sit and chat with a player like Zach Hyman to talk about hockey, video games or schoolwork that is the depth we try to show by being integrated with the kids.”

None of this, however, would be possible without the numerous volunteers that are running the grassroots hockey programs G&D supports. These people play an essential role by giving up their time on top of their normal jobs.

Back in 2015, Moezine Hasham started Hockey 4 Youth to provide Canadians and at-risk youth a chance to play hockey. Thanks to the help of the Marner Assist Fund, Mitch Marner’s charity foundation, and the NHLPA, 25 additional sets of new hockey equipment were donated to Hockey 4 Youth in January. After the recent donation was presented by Marner and Chris Campoli, the children got to work on the ice. 

Hasham understands the hurdles presented by getting equipment and ice time, and he makes it a point to explain to his students that not everyone gets the opportunity they are receiving. He believes that on top of the donation, getting invited to watch the Maple Leafs practice that same day added to the experience.

“I was standing with some of the kids as they were watching practice and two things stood out to me. Number one, they were really focused on the effort the players were giving to craft their skills and I think that was important,” Hasham explained. “The other thing I found that was really important was seeing a female coach on the ice. I think Hayley Wickenheiser and Barb Underhill were working with the players, and the young women in the program really took notice.

“On top of that, of course, meeting Mitch and for him to give his time and his resources. Those are key things for these kids to watch professional players, there's that instant connection. And I think as a child, it was the same for me.”

In his time as a player and now as a Divisional Player Representative for the NHLPA, Campoli understands how important it is to get involved at the grassroots level because of the different traits the children learn when they are on the ice.

Even just seeing them on the ice serves as a reminder of the bigger picture when it comes to what the players’ program is trying to accomplish.

“Goals & Dreams is truly a special program to me, considering its 20 years old and has been handed down from different generations of players,” Campoli explained. “The principles always stay the same and that's giving kids the opportunity to play the game.”

Campoli believes the growth of reach and diverse programs speak to how invested the players are in the success of G&D and making sure that it continues to meet the core values established back in 1999.

“That's what it's about, honestly, you bring the players together with communities and countries. I mean, not just in North America. It's meant so much to all of us.”

Marner understands that as one of the young stars in the NHL, it is up to them to carry the torch and make a difference even if it is a minor one. For him, it’s important to make sure that the only barriers these children have when it comes to playing hockey are the boards themselves.

“We never took anything for granted growing up, and seeing them able to play hockey, we’re just hoping to jumpstart them into something that could mean a lot for them going forward,” Marner said. “We want them to hopefully seize that moment and realize the opportunity to have a dream and if you work hard you can achieve it.”

Whenever he is asked about where the program is going, Smith proudly talks about the way the program can make an impact. Over the past 20 years, NHLPA Goals & Dreams has evolved from an initial $15-million commitment over five years to now more than $25 million in donations since its inception.

“The program has evolved from the way we give equipment, the way we interact with the kids and the way we do our events,” Smith explains. “You know, ideally, in a perfect world, I would like to be able to do more events to have these young kids meet their heroes. That to me is the next step. How do we make that happen more? It's not an easy task, because how do we get even more touch points with the players? But I think just as equally important is, how do we get more kids playing the game?”

In the meantime, with each ensuing donation and connection made, it’s the commitment to answering those questions that has G&D and the players bringing hockey to those who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity.