Leafs' Tavares set to 'pay it forward' in new partnership with Special Olympics

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TORONTO — John Tavares looks back fondly on the casual lunchtime chats and classroom visits where he would lend a hand with school work.

And the ball hockey games. Oh, those ball hockey games.

"They always got fired up to play ball hockey," he recalled this week.

A junior star with the Ontario Hockey League's Oshawa Generals from 2005 through 2009 — one destined to compete under the brightest lights on the biggest stage — Tavares could often be found volunteering alongside students with intellectual disabilities at his high school.

"It always put me in a good mood, always put a smile on my face," he said. "That just tells you the impact and the positivity and the types of special people they are.

"It had a lasting impact."

Now the Toronto Maple Leafs captain wants to give back.

Through his foundation, Tavares is partnering with Special Olympics Canada to promote and raise funds for its Unified Sports programs, which aim to integrate individuals with and without intellectual disabilities on teams for training and competition to promote social engagement and development.

"Each and every day is so precious to them," Tavares said in an interview with The Canadian Press. "It really puts things in perspective for me, not taking things for granted.

"Even with the challenges and difficulties they face on a daily basis, it's amazing how much joy they have and how great they are as people, and how they make the most of every opportunity."

Special Olympics Canada CEO Sharon Bollenbach said her organization was thrilled when The John Tavares Foundation, which launched last year, reached out to discuss a possible collaboration.

Tavares and his wife, Aryne, actually first met in high school when both volunteered as teenagers alongside students with intellectual disabilities.

"There's this full-circle, pay-it-forward thing that has happened here that is so rich and so fantastic," Bollenbach said. "They're now motivated to create a whole new generation of students who are going to experience Special Olympics and carry what John and Aryne have. That's what the program is all about. That's the change we're hoping to make — that young people will reflect on that experience with a person with an intellectual disability and carry that into their own lives.

"Suddenly we have a world that is far more inclusive and far more accepting and recognizing that everyone has something to contribute."

Tavares said he hopes students and young people get as much out of the program — which already runs in schools and communities across Canada — as he and Aryne did.

"They're tremendous people and they're inspiring," the father of two young boys said of Special Olympians. "We can learn so much from them. We want to continue to bring awareness to them and the amazing things they do and how much of a positive impact they can make on the world and our society."

Bollenbach said having one of the NHL's most recognized players from hockey's biggest market on board is a huge boost for Unified Sports.

"Bringing that star quality, that star power to our movement is going to be a good thing for us and a good thing for our athletes," she said. "I think people are going to be interested and excited to learn more about what John is supporting and putting his name behind.

"(The Tavares family's) passion for Special Olympics makes this all so genuine and authentic. We align so much on our values as organizations in terms of our belief in inclusion and that everyone — all people — bring value."

Bollenbach added that while the general public is usually aware of high-profile Special Olympics events, the organization is constantly working to promote everything else it offers.

"The real heart of Special Olympics is our daily sport programs," she said. "Every day you can find a Special Olympics program on the soccer pitch, at the skating rink, at the cross-country ski venue, at bowling, at swimming."

That's of course largely not been the case during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Special Olympics remains an important part of the athletes' lives — albeit virtually.

"It's been a No. 1 priority for us to make sure we stay connected," Bollenbach added. "Their community still exists. It just exists in a different form."

Like most everything else, it will be back.

And Tavares will be there to help propel things forward.

"We just want to be who we are," he said of his family and foundation. "I've had so many people in my life contribute to where I'm at today. Hopefully I can inspire many other kids, other people to follow their dreams and live life to the fullest.

"This is very important to us. We want to make a positive difference."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2021.

Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press