Sometimes, the best sports lessons are learned off the ice.
That’s something that seemingly occurred before and following a recent hockey game between U11 hockey teams from Penetanguishene and Meaford.
The young Penetanguishene team was playing a game at the local rink in Meaford. Not a huge crowd, average for a minor hockey event.
Following the game, Penetanguishene Flames U11 head coach Jon Cundy was called out of the change-room where he had been talking to his young chargers to speak with an older man, who he estimates was in his 70s.
The man told Cundy he was Ukrainian and deeply touched by the team’s gesture of taping their sticks with yellow and blue, the colours of the Ukrainian flag.
“He was just telling me how sincerely appreciative he was of us showing recognition for what's going on, and how some of the smallest things make a big impact in people's lives,” Cundy says.
But the story doesn’t end there.
Cundy says the "incredibly humble" man caught him off guard as he went on to describe how he planned to return to Ukraine by catching a plane on Tuesday.
“He said, ‘I’ve never picked up a rifle in my life, but I'm going to go back, and I'm going to support my country any way that I can, and do whatever I can to help defend it.’”
Cundy says he was taken aback by the man’s plan and wishes now he had given him a hug before the man ambled past the other assembled parents, walked down the dressing-room hallway and out of sight.
“I looked at the parents, and I'm just like ‘is anyone else feeling like the hair on the back of their neck is standing up?’ We all felt the same and wished we had the foresight to hug him.”
Cundy says he tried to find out the man’s name afterwards by reaching out to Meaford hockey teams along with a figure skating group that had been on the ice before his team’s game.
“I was trying to get the contact information for this gentleman so that our team could send him emails, not that he's gonna have access to it, but to show support. I also feel my business is a little unsettled with him, just in terms of the impact that he made on me.”
On the drive back from Meaford, Cundy and his son Isaac, who plays on the Under-11 team, talked about the man with Isaac asking whether he would be okay.
“Isaac said, ‘so he’s leaving his family to go there? That’s not safe.’ And I said, ‘well Isaac, I don’t know for a fact he will be coming back. But I think he’s thought about that and said his goodbyes.’
“I said, ‘all we can do is hope and pray that he does return and everything's fine.’”
Prior to deciding to tape their sticks, Cundy spoke with the team about the situation in the war-torn country and, to use a sporting metaphor, described how much of an underdog they are in their fight against Russia.
“It wasn't for anything other than to show our support for what's going on,” says Cundy, who also coaches Penetanguishene’s U15 team, which has also taped their sticks blue and yellow.
“We've talked about it as a team. We sort of talked about Ukraine being the underdog and Russia being sort of the bigger guy, and then just sort of that support as a mantra moving forward with the whole David versus Goliath thing.”
Cundy imagines his team isn’t the first to tape their sticks with blue and yellow tape and has since heard from teams in Mississauga, Calgary and a team playing at a tournament in Elmvale that are taping their sticks in the Ukrainian flag's colours as well.
“It's sort of traveling through the minor hockey associations at this point in time,” he says. “It’s pretty neat to see how widely you can touch different people.”
But he’d like to see professional hockey players and those in other sports make a great effort to show their support for Ukraine.
“My platform is pretty small, but the NHL has got a larger platform,” Cundy says. “And little kids growing up always look to these athletes as role models.
“I'm not gonna get into all the politics side of things, but it doesn't mean that you can't put pressure on them from other directions. Russian kids should be able to look up to their Russian hockey role models and see that they don't appreciate what's going on, if that's the case.”
Cundy says he will never forget the man for not only his gratitude and kind words, but more so his bravery.
As his wife Melissa Dupuis points out, taping hockey sticks may seem so small compared to the war and the heroes fighting for their freedom on the battlefront.
“But it was big for a Ukrainian man watching a game in a small Ontario town,” she says. “You just never know where or how someone will be affected by your actions even if you think they are small. That should never deter you from making the effort in the first place.”
And for Cundy, distilling life lessons seems to be as important as winning; whether as a parent or a coach.
“The expectation is that you teach them how to play a sport,” he explains. “But you also want to teach these boys and girls how to be men and women in life outside of the rink, the soccer fields or the ski slopes.”