It has been an emotional year for the Major Midget Elgin-Middlesex Chiefs.
The 16- and 17-year-olds are wrapping up their minor hockey playing days with their sights set on junior hockey and beyond.
But tragedy struck the team in October when the brother of team captain Eric Smith died by suicide.
“It’s definitely not something you see in the coaching manual. That moment I found out is something I’ll never forget,” said team coach Rumun Ndur.
“I just hope that we’ve made Eric’s life as comfortable as possible. It was just such a terrible tragedy that he had to go through, and we just wanted to do right by him.”
Following the tragedy, the team got involved in the Babsocks campaign, an initiative in which teams from across the country sell socks with a cartoon face of Mike Babcock, the former head coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, with proceeds going toward mental health initiatives.
The Chiefs ended up selling more socks than anyone and won the opportunity to have a practice with the former NHL coach.
“It was a bittersweet campaign because I think a lot of the success we had with the initiative was because of what happened,” said Ndur, who spent more than 20 years playing professional hockey, including a handful of stops in the NHL.
“Out of the tragedy, we were able to raise a bunch of money for this cause, and I think the boys also learned a lot about themselves and the importance of mental health. They just wanted to do what they could to support Eric.”
Last week, the team was chartered on a bus from Komoka to Toronto for the opportunity to practise with Babcock.
The practice only lasted about 50 minutes, but Ndur says Babcock made a pretty significant impression during that short time.
“He’s all business. The drills he had them doing and the way he was explaining it, he was really intense. It was great to see; I learned a lot from the whole experience,” said Ndur.
“He was very welcoming, asking a bunch of questions about what the team needs to work on and what they need help with.”
If the young players thought they were getting a nice, relaxed practice where they could chat with Babcock and hear some stories from the longtime coach, they were mistaken.
“He put the boys through a pretty hard practice, a lot harder than I think they were expecting,” said Ndur.
The practice came at a good time for the hockey club as they prepared for the home stretch of the regular season. With a handful of games left, the Chiefs sit third in the Alliance Hockey standings with an 18-10-0-1 record.