‘Hockey is a game for all’: New book promotes inclusion in Canada’s national game

'The Hockey Jersey' was written to make all children feel like they belong in the sport of hockey. Dilshad Burman with how the book's creators hope to further inclusion and diversity in Canada's national game.

By Dilshad Burman

There’s nothing more Canadian than the good old hockey game, but when it comes to including the many diverse groups that call Canada home, there’s some work to be done.

The creators of a new children’s book are aiming to help make Canada’s national game more representative of all Canadians with a new twist on a literary classic.

“The Hockey Jersey,” written by Jael Richardson, is reminiscent of the beloved book “The Hockey Sweater” by Roch Carrier. It features a diverse cast and a modern storyline geared towards fostering a sense of belonging in the game.

“When you don’t see yourself in literature when you don’t see yourself in spaces like a hockey arena or a basketball court, if you don’t see yourself represented, you can often think that you don’t belong or that there’s something strange or weird about you, that you’re sort of an outsider if you do choose to go into those spaces,” says Richardson.

Richardson says seeing characters in books that look, talk and have names like their own is empowering and motivating for children and adults alike.

“It makes you feel included, it makes you feel sort of courageous, bold because you see all the things a hero can do, and that hero looks like you, and suddenly you feel braver in different circumstances,” she says.

The book was published as part of Scotiabank’s “Hockey For All” initiative, a first for the financial institution that is a major sponsor of the sport.

“They were looking to create a children’s book that would change the face of hockey,” explains Richardson.

“It’s Canada’s game, but we want it to look and feel like Canada and to have everybody be represented. So ‘Hockey for All’ is our initiative to help grow inclusion and diversity in the sport of hockey,” adds John Rocco, vice president of global brand marketing for Scotiabank.

Rocco says children’s literature, especially hockey-related books, lacks diversity and a sense of inclusivity. With this book, they’re looking to further representation in both literature and hockey.

“There are hardly any books with a girl on the cover, let alone a girl of colour on the cover,” he says.

“In order for the game to grow, we need a new generation of fans to be inspired to access the game, to play the game … and we really wanted children of all backgrounds to be seen in the sport, so we felt that we had a responsibility to do that.”

The book’s text weaves in a variety of names and pronouns as the story unfolds, and illustrator Chelsea Charles was brought on board to bring the diverse characters to life.

“Chelsea and I got to work on it all the way through. So much of the representation work is done through the illustrations rather than through the text,” says Richardson.

“There are actually so many little nuggets in the book — the character with Vitiligo, the pronouns — I think kids who haven’t seen themselves represented will see those little moments as affirmations that like, ‘yeah, it’s okay to be you. It’s okay to be a little bit this way or a little bit that way. It’s okay to be tall, it’s okay to have short hair. It’s okay to do all these things that we often stigmatize. Chelsea and I had a lot of fun with putting those things right there in the forefront.”

Twelve-year-old hockey player Eva Perron was a special contributor to the project. She’s been playing the game since she was seven years old and is the daughter of CityLine host Tracy Moore.

“I helped with the vibe of hockey, not just on the ice, but also the social aspect, the order that we put on our gear. And then also because I speak French, the French translation,” explains Perron.

Moore, an avid reader herself, says her daughter jumped at the chance to help with a book about a sport she loves and making it more welcoming to all.

“When I saw that she was taking it seriously and was really committing and being part of it, I couldn’t be prouder. That’s my baby,” she says.

“I’m all about books, so to know that she has participated and contributed to a book — I don’t know if there’s anything that would make me more proud.”

Perron feels “The Hockey Jersey” will be very relatable to kids who don’t usually get to see themselves on the pages of a published and widely distributed book.

“They’re going to feel great, they’re going to feel like they can play hockey too. And I think it’s really good for like people to see themselves represented in books because I think it’ll make them feel encouraged,” she says. “Hockey is a game for all. Nothing should stop you from playing a sport. You deserve to play.”

She adds that she gets her love for hockey from her dad, a lifelong hockey player, and not only enjoys the sport but also all the social aspects it entails.

“Stuff like tournaments, hanging out with my friends in the change room, all that team dinners,” she says.

“I think also for kids that age, it’s nice to have an alternative friend group,” adds Moore. “To have this other community of people [outside of school] you can lean on … they’re all in constant contact, and they stay friends, and I think a lot of them will stay lifetime friends, so that’s really lovely.”

With an eye toward helping more children experience the joys of the game, all net proceeds from the sale of the book will go to the Hockey 4 Youth Foundation.

“Our mission is to foster social inclusion for newcomer teens of all genders and other youth who face barriers through free ice hockey programs and our off-ice experiential learning program called ‘TEACH’ — where we focus on technology, entrepreneurship, the arts, community giving and healthy, active living,” explains executive director and founder, Moezine Hasham.

He says his organization tries to remove the many barriers to entry that exist in the game of hockey.

“When you think about hockey just in general in Canada, we are consumed by it. We call it our national game, but there are just so many kids and teens who are left out of the sport. When you think about the cost of hockey — playing one season can cost almost $4,000. And when we particularly look at girls at the age of 14, they’re dropping out of sport at twice the rate of boys. There could also be cultural barriers. So for us, our slogan has always been the only barrier should be the boards,” he says.

“We offer this free program by providing all of the equipment, the ice time, the coaching, the off-ice experiential learning opportunities, all of that is free. And we partner with high schools to deliver our program.”

He says the collaboration with Scotiabank and “The Hockey Jersey” will help them bring the book’s message to life.

“We know that the Institute of Canadian Citizenship released a study where they talked about the statistic that 71 per cent of newcomers express an interest in hockey, but only 1 per cent will have an opportunity to play,” he says.

“We’re able to use the net proceeds from this book to then be able to go out and buy more equipment, to get more girls and boys and kids of all genders into our programs so that they can experience exactly what the book is talking about. It’s from Page to ice — whatever they’re seeing reflected on the page, we’re able to do on the ice.”

The book is available to download for free here, and hard copies are available at Indigo bookstores online.

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