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Mentorship gives B.C. junior hockey players first-hand look at addiction

Exposure to Vancouver’s dark side helps young hockey players become community leaders
Unique program by "Odd Squad" proves successful in turning young people away from drugs and gangs. Aaron McArthur has more on what a BCJHL team learned from their experience

There are piles of used hypodermic needles in front of almost every room on the third floor of the Arco Hotel in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Garbage is piled up so deep in one room, it would be easy to assume it is abandoned.

It is not. The hotel is full of people paying more than they can afford for conditions that are less than anyone deserves.

This is the scene six members of the BC Hockey League Surrey Eagles find themselves in. The look on the faces of the 19-year-old players says it all. For some time after they leave the hotel, words simply fail the young men.

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“It’s hard to see people live like this,” says Eagles forward Kenny Riddett from Fishkill, N.Y.

The players are taking part in a program offered by the Odd Squad, a non-profit association made up of current and former police officers that uses documentaries and peer-to-peer presentations to educate about the dangers of addiction and gangs.

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The junior hockey mentorship program is the Odd Squad’s most popular program. Since 1997, players have been given self-defence training as well as classroom presentations before the group heads out onto the street.

The Odd Squad says it is designed as a peer-to-peer leadership opportunity rather than a “scared straight” program.

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“We are not trying to scare anyone here, we are simply giving the players the truth,” said Doug Spencer, who recently retired after 40 years with the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) and Metro Vancouver Transit Police.

“This experience, we find, really resonates with hockey players at this level.

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“These are kids who have really had anything they have ever wanted in life. They can take their experiences and go back to the community and connect with younger kids. The message means more coming from them than it ever would from ex-cops.”

Critics are quick to point out programs like this can be exploitative. The Odd Squad argues this is more than just voyeurism. The players, through the VPD, meet as many people as they can and listen to their stories.

“Tours like this need to be done in a respectful way,” said DTES advocate Sarah Blyth, who spearheaded B.C.’s first unsanctioned overdose prevention site.

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“Just because someone is homeless doesn’t mean they aren’t entitled to some privacy. At the same time, learning about the challenges down here is important.”

READ MORE: Stories from the other side — Voices of addiction and recovery

One man who called himself Freddy was smoking heroin in the alley behind the overdose prevention society. He described how he ended up in the Downtown Eastside.

After a stint in a federal penitentiary, he was released to a halfway house in New Westminster. He eventually made his way to the Downtown Eastside and hasn’t left.

He tells the players about his addiction, but more than that, he talks about his desire to start a new life.

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He has an interest in designing video games. As he shares his story, the group begins to see that Freddy is more than his addiction.

“Talking to people, you can understand where they have come from,” goalie Cal Schell told Global News.

Surrey Eagles general manager Blaine Neufeld jumped at the opportunity for his players to take part in the program.

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He did the same thing 10 years ago as a player for the Saskatoon Blades. He sees this as a chance for his older players to grow as leaders and help kids avoid the pitfalls of bad decisions.

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“You have an opportunity to see something first hand, process it and communicate it,” Neufeld said.

“That is what leadership is really about. It is really smart of the Odd Squad to rely on the kids to communicate this message. It is easier for young people to process when it comes from someone they look up to… like a hockey player.”

Thousands of junior hockey players have made the trip to the Odd Squad offices in Burnaby for the workshop. More than 400 have gone on to play in the NHL.