Skip to content

PHOTOS: Disadvantaged kids score hockey program in Vernon

Hockey 4 Youth program honours hockey legend Larry Kwong

Watching kids of diverse backgrounds take their first shaky strides on the ice at the Okanagan Training Rink in Vernon was a special moment for Kristina Heintz.

She is the daughter of Vernon hockey legend Larry Kwong, who broke the colour barrier when he became the first player of Asian descent to play in the National Hockey League in 1948.

Now 75 years after Kwong’s historic shift with the New York Rangers — the only shift he would play in his NHL career — a new program has arrived in Vernon to give kids the chance to take part in Canada’s national pastime, no matter their place of origin or their parents’ income.

Hockey 4 Youth is a charitable organization that prioritizes inclusion in the sport for newcomer and sidelined boys and girls. Founded in 2015, it offers free hockey programs to schools in large Canadian urban centres, with one exception. After popping up in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Hamilton and Vancouver, Hockey 4 Youth has now branched out to its first small city: Vernon.

“I think barriers need to be broken and Hockey 4 Youth is a great organization that is giving the kids the opportunity they otherwise may not have had to play Canada’s greatest game,” Heintz told The Morning Star at the first Larry Kwong Memorial Hockey 4 Youth ice session in Vernon Saturday, Dec. 16, the first of 16 training sessions that will take place at the Okanagan Training Rink between now and April 2024.

“My dad had so many opportunities through hockey — traveling, lifelong friends — and I hope that this is what these kids get out of this as well.”

The program in Vernon is sponsored by the Canucks for Kids Fund, and all expenses are covered for the kids, including gear and ice time, breaking down a massive barrier for kids to enter the sport.

“It can cost almost $4,000 a year to put a child into minor hockey for one season,” said Moezine Hasham, founder of Hockey 4 Youth, at the rink on Saturday. “When you’re struggling to pay rent, when you’re struggling to put food on the table, if you’re new to the country, you have a lot of challenges ahead of you … so we’re really filling the gap for the kids.”

Hasham knows first-hand what it’s like to be a newcomer to Canada without the means to play hockey. He is the child of refugee parents who came to Canada from Uganda in 1972. When Hasham was six years old, his parents couldn’t afford to put him into hockey, but it was the generosity of a neighbour who gave him the gear her son had outgrown that allowed him to play the sport.

“The sport means a lot to me,” he said.

Hasham added that the chance to honour Larry Kwong, whose story he had just heard in the last year or so, is part of why he brought the program to Vernon.

Hockey 4 Youth has given more than 700 kids representing 41 different countries of origin the chance to play the sport. In Vernon, 20 students from Mission Hill Elementary School are taking part. Most are from immigrant families, including Ukrainian refugees. Languages represented on the ice include Chinese, Hindi, Jamaican, Korean, Punjabi, Russian, Tagalog and Ukrainian. The group also includes Indigenous and Canadian-born kids who have been sidelined for financial reasons.

There is an off-ice component to the program, too, with kids getting the chance to go on field trips and other team-building activities.

There were a lot of falls on the ice on Saturday as some of the kids were getting their first skating experience under their belts, but Hasham and a team of instructors were there to help them get back on their feet.

“That first step is always the hardest and I know that they have the resiliency to get back up once they fall, and that’s an important life lesson,” Hasham said.

With Vernon being the first smaller city to get a Hockey 4 Youth program, Hasham says the goal is to branch out more smaller communities as early as next season.

Hasham said Canucks for Kids has been “monumental” in helping to get the program up and running in Vernon.

“This is a really exciting time for us because as a charitable organization, Hockey 4 Youth is proud to be in Vernon,” Hasham said.

READ MORE: 75 years ago today: Vernon player makes hockey history

READ MORE: Luongo reflective as he prepares to enter Canuck ring of honour

Brendan Shykora

About the Author: Brendan Shykora

I started at the Morning Star as a carrier at the age of 8. In 2019 graduated from the Master of Journalism program at Carleton University.
Read more