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Calgary Inferno Start the Spark for Mental Health Awareness with DIFD Fundraiser

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As the game of women’s hockey continues to grow, so too are the opportunities to add to an expanding legacy as sporting humanitarians. With it brings an important element that sees the players bringing causes close to their hearts into the rink. It brings with it a sense of ownership for the players, obtaining a sense of belonging as they utilize hockey as a means of raising awareness and bringing improvement to others lives with important fundraising events.

For the Calgary Inferno, a heartwarming cause took place on February 13, 2016 as a fundraiser for the exceptional cause Do It for Daron (DIFD) took place, the first in CWHL history. Honoring the life of Daron Richardson, who would have turned 20 years young a few weeks ago, DIFD has reached iconic status in both men’s and women’s hockey, demonstrating how compassion can contribute towards doing more than just eradicating the stigmas of mental illness, but work collaboratively in the goal of mental wellness.

This season, fundraisers for both DIFD and Denna Laing have triggered a potency of passion, providing a broader understanding of hockey players as not just athletes, but as people. Such openly-ended positivity bore powerful resonance, a statement of the exciting possibilities that can occur when true teamwork emerges. It is the type of sentiment shared by All-Star goaltender Delayne Brian, praising the high energy that took place in raising awareness,

“I am certainly proud of the effort the team is showing in residing awareness about mental illness. We had a big group of our girls go out to the school Jess Campbell’s sister teaches at (Blessed Cardinal Catholic School). We worked with about 400 grade 5-9 kids. It was amazing seeing the enthusiasm the kids had while learning about Daron Richardson and the importance of erasing the stigma behind mental illness. It was a very rewarding endeavor for sure.”

Several members of the Inferno were first exposed to DIFD when they were students at Cornell University, playing for the varsity Big Red ice hockey team. Said members included the likes of Jessica Campbell, Hayleigh Cudmore, Brianne Jenner, Rebecca Johnston and Jillian Saulnier. Having played for the Big Red with Daron’s older sister, Morgan, it represented a cherished time, where friendship and camaraderie brought with it great compassion and an empathic need to show their support.

Although Cudmore was two years older than Morgan, having already established herself as a veteran leader with the nationally prominent Big Red, her greatest display of leadership was the chance to learn about Morgan’s story. By willing to listen and show empathic respect, it was a tremendous evolution for Cudmore, whose maturity exemplified that on any team, the presence and the voice of a new face can be valuable. In learning about Morgan’s story and the bravery shown by the entire Richardson family, it proved to be more than just a positive life changing moment, it set the foundation for an admirable friendship.     

“When Morgan came to Cornell my junior year, I knew a little bit about DIFD and mental health generally, but not much.  In my two seasons playing with her, I learned so much from her and her family about mental health awareness and the work of DIFD. They have been able to turn their grief into something so helpful to so many people.

Something I respect so much about the Richardsons is that they are also real about their experience; they never say it is easy and all perfect all the time. From my interactions with them, they have always been straight-up that it has been hard since Daron passed and moving forward is something that has to be worked at. That to me is real strength.”

With Morgan’s father, former NHLer Luke Richardson, serving as the head coach of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators, upstate New York was quickly educated on the positive impact of DIFD and its admirable acts. The emotional support of Stephanie, the matriarch of the Richardson family was equally essential. Serving in an executive capacity with DIFD, she quickly became a friend to so many who played alongside Morgan at Cornell.

As the Senators and the Big Red both held DIFD nights, it was a heartwarming example of how the hockey community can collaborate towards a greater good. In reflecting on the opportunity to compete in DIFD nights at both the NCAA and CWHL levels, it was something that provided Cudmore with tremendous meaning,  

“Absolutely. Morgan and her family are amazing people. They have turned their unfathomable grief into something that helps countless people. I got to play in two DIFD games at Cornell, and now my first one in the CWHL. I feel lucky to be personally connected to the Richardsons and without a doubt I play these games thinking of them.”

The catalyst in helping make the Inferno’s involvement with DIFD a reality is Jessica Campbell. As a player, her list of accomplishments continue to grow. From donning the Canadian jersey (scoring the gold medal winning goal at the 2010 IIHF U18 Worlds) to becoming the first rookie to serve as a CWHL All-Star Game captain, her potential towards superstardom is one with great promise.

Perhaps more impressive was the motivation and drive responsible for assembling such an outstanding fundraiser. Translating into strong leadership, it was also an empathic endeavor for Campbell. DIFD always held a special place in her heart because she had experienced the heartbreak and devastation that comes with someone losing a battle with depression. Morgan became a kindred spirit of sorts for Campbell, finding comfort in a friend who could understand the visceral impact of such loss.

Through sorrow, Campbell found a redeeming desire to help others and the chance to do so by incorporating hockey transformed her goal into a labor of love. Jillian Saulnier, a teammate of Campbell’s at Cornell, the Canadian national team, and currently with the Inferno, is in awe of the kindness put forth, 

“I have played with Jess ever since I was 15 and her passion for making a difference is something that only certain people on this world have the ability to do. Her goal with the DIFD game was to show people that there is always someone in your corner and you are never alone.

The work that girl did behind the scenes is absolutely amazing and I feel incredibly blessed to have been a part of that DIFD game with her. She could have very well saved a life because of what she did and how big her heart is, without even knowing. I’m so proud of her.”

DIFD has proven to be one of the foremost causes for a growing group of players that simultaneously become hockey humanitarians. This season, the support for DIFD has overlapped, resulting in shared points of achievement. Not only did the Inferno hold a fundraiser, but the NWHL’s Boston Pride, which featured several Cornell graduates, along with the ECAC’s Princeton Tigers also held their own DIFD nights.

As purple was Daron’s favorite color, it was only fitting that the aesthetics of the Inferno’s DIFD night were defined by a remarkable purple jersey. Last season, the Carleton Ravens from Canadian Interuniversity Sport employed an all-purple jersey with the DIFD heart-logo proudly emblazoned on the front of their jersey.

The Inferno incorporated the logo on the upper sleeve while silver and black colors complemented their use of the color purple, which was also part of the Inferno’s logo for this contest. With the game-used jerseys being auctioned off for mental health research, said jerseys are destined to become treasures in any hockey fans collection. For goaltender Kathy Desjardins, the jerseys were an absolute pleasure to wear for such a memorable event,

“What I enjoyed most about the DIFD game were the fans! The support we had and to see all the kids there, many that were aware of mental illness and wanted to change the conversation for mental wellness was great to see. Of course, (I enjoyed) our amazing jerseys.

When I put the jersey on, I felt proud. Proud to be part of such a great cause while still wearing the Inferno logo. Proud that maybe by wearing the jersey, plus the hard work that the team put into the event, we might have saved a kids life that was struggling with mental illness. Coming from a military family, I know how hard life can be mentally and I was lucky I had support when the time was dark for my family. So I am happy that the Inferno did the DIFD game.”

Of note, the jerseys were actually revealed several days earlier. With Campbell, Cudmore, Bailey Bram and Jacqui Pierri on-hand at a February 4th Calgary Flames contest against the Carolina Hurricanes, there was more to their involvement than unveiling a sharp jersey.

Near the concession stands, a table was displayed with pamphlets about DIFD and brochures on treatment for mental health. The four Inferno players were at the table, proudly serving as ambassadors for the Inferno and DIFD while wearing the iconic purple jersey. Not only did they help inform the fans about the upcoming fundraiser, but their bright smiles and kind demeanor represented the teamwork needed so that mental health can become an illness free of judgment. For Bram, she was confident that the final outcome of that evening was one where people truly emerged with a positive reaction,

“I think so. A lot of people were not sure what we were promoting at the game, once we got our message out to the public, many fans were stopping in buying t-shirts, donating to the cause and asking how they could help raise awareness for DIFD so we were happy with that!”

As Pierri recalled, there was also an opportunity for the Inferno players to greet the younger fans. Considering that the women of hockey are exceptional role models for young women to look up to, the exemplary teamwork applied by the team truly provided an empowering image.

“It’s always a really positive experience when the Flames give us the opportunity to promote at their games. This time in particular, we had a lot of people really excited about the purple jerseys.

My favorite part though, is always the excitement of the little kids. We over-heard one little girl ask her Dad if she could start playing hockey as she walked away from our booth and that is really what it’s all about. The mid-game interview also ran into some pretty funny microphone-wouldn’t-work problems and I think that actually helped grab people’s attention!”

The game itself was one that consisted of the Inferno hosting Les Canadiennes de Montreal. It was a fitting opponent for the Inferno as Les Canadiennes have set a compassionate standard for other CWHL franchises to emulate, as they have been hosting a Pink at the Rink fundraiser for breast cancer for the last five years. Donning special edition pink jerseys for those games, which are auctioned off afterwards, the cause was equally close to several members of the roster, as they had mothers or aunts that suffered from the disease. Undoubtedly, Les Canadiennes were exceptionally proud of the efforts of the Inferno on this day.

The game itself resulted in an intense battle for first overall in the league standings. After 15 minutes of scoreless play in the first, Rebecca Johnston would set the tone for the remainder of the opening period, scoring twice in less than three minutes.

Only 46 seconds into the second stanza, Noemie Marin, a member of the CWHL’s 200 point club, reduced the Inferno’s lead, scoring the first goal of the game for Les Canadiennes. Once again, the period was another highly contested defensive struggle as elite backstops Charline Labonte and Delayne Brian contributed for close to 15 minutes of scoreless play.

Before the period would expire, Jillian Saulnier scored on the power play, as Rebecca Johnston earned her third point of the game via an assist. It would prove to be the turning point of the game as the Inferno never relinquished the lead in the third period.

At the 18 second mark, Brianne Jenner scored to a roar of approval from the Inferno faithful as Saulnier earned the assist. Les Canadiennes would try to chip away at the lead with a goal by Katia Clement-Heydra with less than six minutes remaining but it was futile as the Inferno would prevail in a 4-2 final, outshooting the visiting team by a convincing 31-23 mark.

Despite not logging a point in the contest, Campbell was recognized as the First Star of the Game, an honor that acknowledged her positive presence and the record-breaking attendance, one that saw mental wellness as the true victor on this day. With a game-high two goals, Johnston was named Third Star while Marin emerged with the Second Star nod. 

Among the notable sports figures in attendance were Calgary Stampeders quarterback Levi Mitchell, also a Grey Cup MVP recipient, along with former NHLer Sheldon Kennedy. Both were impressed by Campbell’s strong leadership and initiative, with Mitchell eager to learn more about how he can help.  

Of note, Kennedy was on-hand with several Inferno players for the pep rally at Blessed Cardinal Newman School. Revealing his experiences with mental health, and the courage to carry on in the face of such difficult circumstances, it was an extension of Kennedy’s admirable work with the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, whose logo was featured on the purple jerseys.

In the aftermath of the game, Pierri was ecstatic at the fan support. Not only was the record attendance a point of pride for the franchise, the impact of the partner schools helped make this a true win-win situation. Should this become an annual event, it may prove to become an essential part of the annual Calgary sporting calendar.

“Seeing all of the posters and the impact that the campaign is already having in our partner schools is something really special. We had a record setting crowd for us and beyond 1850 people supporting our team, that’s also 1850 starting to talk about mental health.

In the hockey community in particular we are taught to internalize physical pain from a very young age so it’s extremely important to start talking about how mental and emotional struggles require different treatment and that it’s not weakness to talk about what one is going through. I’m really so proud of Jess and what she has accomplished with this game. I’m excited to see how it continues to grow over the next few years and how the mentorship program takes off this summer.”

For the future of women’s hockey, allowing its players to have a say and raise funds for a great cause via the sport they love only adds to the enjoyment of participation. It is part of a continual experimentation that sees a fuller picture of what motivates the player, while empowering them to provide their keenest insights.

“All quotes obtained first hand unless otherwise indicated”

Photo credits: Dave Holland

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