Can two guys with ambition make a difference in the lives of at-risk youth?
Judging by the early success of the ProAction Flemingdon Park Hockey League [FPHL] the answer is unequivocally yes.
The FPHL is a league that plays on Sunday afternoons out of Angela James Arena in Flemingdon Park and runs from Oct.17 until April of 2011.
The idea was the brainchild of former 54 Division police officer Jon Burnside, further developed by David Croutch [President of the Don Mills Civitan Hockey League] and 54 Division of the Toronto Police.
Its mandate is to bring together boys and girls, ages 8-11, the police and the community at large through the game of hockey.
A large number of the participants [players and volunteers] in the FPHL are immigrants, who come from countries where their relationships with police are often based on fear and mistrust.
Having police officers involved as coaches, instructors and mentors have allowed residents to see the cops as human beings who care and want to help improve relationships in the area.
“I used to work there [54 Division] and people, at best, ignored the police,” Burnside said.
“Now they [residents] want to buy them coffee, go out of their way to say hi, just like building a community and that’s what community is all about.”
Burnside thinks that having the police involved is the ultimate weapon in the fight against mistrust and fear.
“Because we have the police involved we have extremely positive role models,” he said. “Kids need role models and having positive models like that [police]…priceless.”
With the first season behind them, Burnside has seen a dramatic turnaround in the attitudes of the kids and their parents.
“We’ve built a relationship right there that no amount of barbeques in the summer was going to do,” Burnside said. “Just as importantly, we’ve built a relationship with parents. They [parents] now feel like the police are part of the community, that they care and really that they’re friends. Everyone realizes we’re all just human.”
Croutch also thinks the relationships built on the ice and behind the bench have moved into other areas of life.
“When the police car drives down the street, previously it was just another cop in Flemingdon Park,” Croutch said. “Now the police and kids are, basically, on a first name basis. This is about so much more than hockey and that is the ultimate goal of ProActon.”
What about the kids? What have they learned in their short time in the league?
“[Hockey] teaches discipline (being somewhere on time), teamwork, getting along with others, makes them feel like they’re part of something, feeling like there included,” Burnside said.
“While the kids are playing hockey they are also instilling values, unbeknownst to them, things like teamwork and fair play,” Croutch said. “Skills may decrease over time but values are constant.”
The idea for a hockey league isn’t original but it is the only one that has been successful. In the two years the FPHL has been in operation, enrolment went from 64 in 2009 to 130 for the upcoming season.
Burnside is no stranger to community involvement. For the last 20 years he has worked in the Leaside area to improve the lives of children and the people in the community.
Currently, he is the President of Healthy Heart Meals [a meal delivery service] and is running for office in the Ward 26 riding of Don Valley West.
He approached Dennis Timbrell [cabinet member in the Bill Davis government and MPP in the former Toronto riding of Don Mills] with the idea for the FPHL.
“Timbrell suggested if I could get this hockey program going it would be monumental,” Burnside said.
To help bring the idea to life he needed a person who knew, simply, how to get things done. He recruited Croutch because, as Burnside put it, “he’s a selfless human being when it comes to children’s hockey.
“He was the guy who knew all the hockey rules, knew all the hockey people to call; he’s a guy whose ultra connected because of his involvement with children’s hockey.”
Burnside was the inspiration but Croutch was his foil, his reality check. They met in April of 2007 and immediately went to work on the program, but Croutch had seen other programs of a similar nature crash and burn.