Carey Price took full advantage of his time on stage at the 2015 NHL Awards in Las Vegas.
After opening his Vezina Trophy acceptance speech with appreciation for his family and teammates, Price turned his attention towards First Nations youth.
"I made it here because I wasn't discouraged,” said Price, who hails from the Ulkatcho First Nation in Anahim Lake, B.C. “I worked hard to get here, took advantage of every opportunity that I had. And I would really encourage First Nations youth to be leaders in their communities. Be proud of your heritage and don't be discouraged from the improbable."
The Montreal Canadiens superstar wanted to encourage youth that night but the power of his words went well beyond that thanks to Ethan Kowatsch, then a 10-year-old listening to his speech from Mississauga, Ont.
Hearing about his hockey idol's struggle to access equipment and Price’s 640-kilometre round trip to play in Williams Lake, B.C., profoundly moved Kowatsch. Price’s speech was one of the catalysts that inspired Kowatsch to start a hockey equipment drive for First Nations youth living in remote communities in Northern Ontario.
Kowatsch, himself a goaltender who will play for the Toronto Titans Bantam AAA team this season, also has a natural desire to give to others, something that started at a young age.
In kindergarten, one of his friends was diagnosed with leukemia and Kowatsch stepped up to help by collecting donations for the SickKids hospital rather than birthday and Christmas gifts for himself.
"I just liked giving back to people," says Kowatsch. "After (Price’s) speech, I thought, 'Oh, I can do a hockey equipment drive on top of this.’”
Fast forward to 2019 and Kowatsch, his father Ken and mother Tristan Cammaert are hard at work in southern Ontario collecting equipment for the fourth-straight year. The growth of the equipment drive is staggering; 10 bags were collected in 2016 and about 10 times that – 100 bags – were collected in 2018.
Attawapiskat, Brunswick House, Chapleau Cree, Fort Albany, Kashechewan, Moose Factory and Wahgoshig are just some of the communities whose residents have benefitted from these donations.
“There is absolutely no option for the residents to go to a (sporting goods store) to pick up equipment," says Cammaert. “Getting this equipment is very helpful to kids who want to play.”
Paul Harrison, a former Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer and Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender (1978-80) met Kowatsch and his parents through a connection in the Greater Toronto Hockey League. Harrison’s role as a drug prevention coordinator with the OPP allowed him to visit the schools in these communities and helped identify where equipment was needed.
“For these kids, getting this gear is like Christmas when they receive this stuff,” Harrison says. “You have to think of the logistics. Most of these communities are fly-in only. For just a short period, there are ice roads that you can drive on to get the stuff into the communities.”
In addition to identifying the at-need communities, Harrison supports the initiative by collaborating with the OPP department in South Porcupine to store and clean the equipment and engaging with police departments and transportation agencies to deliver the gear.
He has also assisted several other equipment drives in the past. A particular effort in 2011, organized by Constable Marc Beauparlant of the Nishnawbe-Aski Police Service (NAPS), played a significant role in catalyzing the consistent push for skates, sticks, shin pads, goalie masks and other equipment over the past decade.
On a “beautiful wintery night” in the Marten Falls First Nation back in 2010, Beauparlant witnessed just four kids playing hockey on the community rink while a bunch of other children stood along the boards watching.
“I said to myself, “This is not right,” says Beauparlant. “Because most people are on social assistance, they don’t have the revenue to buy hockey equipment.
“For next winter, the kids are going to have skates, shin pads and hockey sticks at a minimum.”
The equipment drive netted 90 helmets, 39 hockey sticks, 306 skates, 26 hockey bags and 23 pieces of goalie equipment. The effects that come with youth and adults receiving this equipment go beyond just playing Canada's game.
“The distribution of hockey equipment connects me with the community at a positive event,” says Beauparlant. “Usually, they see police in negative situations. Right there, you have a positive impact. The kids that get equipped have a change of behaviour towards police.”
Cammaert says Harrison has told them just how big of an impact Ethan's collection efforts are making.
“He said to Ethan, 'I don't know if you realize that you are not just sending equipment to help kids play hockey, which is great, but you are actually saving lives,’” says Cammaert.
Given that there is always a high demand for equipment on the reserves, Kowatsch's goal for the 2019 drive is to surpass the amount of gear collected in 2018.
In addition to collecting equipment at GTHL games, the Kowatsch family engages with family and friends via email and phone to arrange pick-ups. Cammaert jokes the family garage will transform into “the stinkiest locker room you can imagine,” over the next two months.
Harrison or other volunteers will meet with the family in November to begin the delivery process up to Northern Ontario. Last year, the family had so much equipment that they had to rent U-Hauls to get it to Harrison's associates.
Kowatsch is hopeful that Year 4 will attract active participation as the drive has grown so much “more people are expecting it each year.” He has a desire to continue the drive throughout his high school years.
He says the even the smallest donation carries enormous weight.
“Donating just two skates is way bigger than donating nothing,” he says. “Even a little bit is enough to help a bunch of people. I think the biggest thing I have learned is even a little bit helps a significant amount.”
Price is doing his part in generating buzz for the drive as he shared a post about Ethan on his Facebook page.
“I think it’s great that Ethan has been so enthusiastic about helping give the opportunity to play a sport that we are passionate about,” says Price. “I’m very proud of the young man.”
To support Ethan and his mission, send an email to [email protected].