A program that has donated hockey bags and equipment to children from Indigenous communities across Ontario for seven years has expanded to Greater Sudbury, Ont., and the surrounding region.
Volunteers with the Indigenous Hockey Equipment Drive were at the Northern Hockey Academy on Saturday, where they gave away 150 hockey bags filled with equipment.
The bags went to children from nearby First Nations, including Wahnapitae First Nation, Atikameksheng Anishnawbek and Henvey Inlet First Nation.
Graham McWaters said he started the Indigenous Hockey Equipment Drive after speaking with families from Beausoleil First Nation at a hockey tournament in Midland, Ont., in 2015.
"I was coming out of a hockey rink in Midland with my son Ryan and we saw some children with hockey bags that were plastic bags," he said.
McWaters said he spoke with the families and arranged to get them some new hockey bags and equipment.
That first year he said they collected eight or nine hockey bags and about 25 sticks. The next year they collected 30 bags, and were able to get 100 the year after that.
The last two years they have collected 1,000 bags full of hockey equipment, from donation drives in the Toronto area.
He said he contacts hockey associations who then email their members about upcoming hockey bag and equipment drives.
"And then people come nonstop on that date," McWaters said. "And I use local hockey players as volunteers to help me, you know, empty the bags."
He said he now collects 100 to 200 hockey bags during each drive.
With success in the Toronto area, McWaters said they plan to expand their donation drives with hockey associations in Ottawa and Greater Sudbury.
This year, for the first time, the Indigenous Hockey Equipment Drive collaborated with the Northern Hockey Academy to give away hockey equipment they collected in southern Ontario.
Craig Maki, Northern Hockey Academy's assistant general manager, said it was an easy decision for the new hockey skills school to work with McWaters and his team.
"We're actually thrilled and we hope it's going to be something that we can do every year from this point forward," he said.
"Being able to participate in something of this magnitude to help all the kids from various communities in northern Ontario, I think that'll be a great moment of pride for the Northern Hockey Academy."