After learning that a team of teenage First Nations hockey players were targeted with racist comments at a game last spring, St. Louis Blues star forward Ryan O’Reilly took the opportunity as he visited Ottawa this week to invite the whole team to watch the Blues battle the Senators on Thursday night.
The First Nation Elites Bantam AAA hockey team, a group of 13- to 15-year-olds from Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia, were participating in a tournament in Quebec City in May 2018 when they were taunted with racist gestures and language and hurtful chants from opposing players, parents and even a coach, according to media reports of the incident at the time.
O’Reilly’s mother reportedly read about the incident in the news and called her son to tell him about it.
“I think both me and my mom were upset about it,” the 28-year-old hockey player from Clinton, Ont. said in an interview with stlouisblues.com. “That’s not what the game is about. We say Hockey Is For Everyone, and that was just disgusting. There’s no place in the game for it.”
O’Reilly reportedly bought 35 tickets in the Canadian Tire Centre’s lower bowl for Thursday night’s NHL game so each player on the young team could also bring along a parent.
“I just want to tell them ‘Keep enjoying and keep loving playing the game,'” he said. “‘Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t.'”
The Elites Bantam AAA players also got to attend the Blues’ morning skate, where they met O’Reilly and some of his teammates, before going to lunch with O’Reilly’s mom and her husband.
“It breaks my heart that anyone would treat children in that fashion,” O’Reilly’s mother, Bonnie, said about the incident last spring in an interview with stlouisblues.com. “I thought, ‘We need to do something to let these kids know that there are lots of people out here that don’t feel that way and instead want to be supportive of them.'”
The team’s coach, Tommy Neeposh, said Thursday’s experience will be a “huge motivator” for the young athletes and hopes it inspires them to keep “chasing their dreams.”
“My boys are going to get a lot out of this,” Neeposh told stlouisblues.com.
“These kids will never forget this for the rest of their lives. We’re speechless, you know? Words can’t express what we’re feeling.”
WATCH: Quebec hockey game turns ugly (Feb. 27)
O’Reilly and his mother came up with the plan for the day together; she said she wasn’t surprised he was up to the task.
“From the time he was little, if he could help other kids in school, he always did those sorts of things,” she said. “I know he feels fortunate to have the life he has, but he’s always giving back and that makes me proud.
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