As the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL) wrapped up its ninth season, one which saw the Calgary Inferno became the first franchise based in Western Canada to capture the coveted the Clarkson Cup, it was only fitting that the franchise was also part of the most heartwarming and captivating event of the entire season. The final result was more than a fundraiser in honor of Do It for Daron (DIFD), but an event that captured the imagination of fans while warming their hearts.
The Calgary Inferno’s efforts resulted in a powerful message, one in which a record-crowd packed Winsport Arena, to witness the Inferno grace the ice in a contest in which the awareness about mental health, and the strength to overcome it with understanding and encouragement, creates a true win-win situation.
Such a cause is one that is of tremendous importance to several members of the Inferno as they were first exposed to the redeeming story of DIFD during their NCAA years with the Cornell Big Red. Among them were five fantastic women, including Jessica Campbell, Hayleigh Cudmore, Brianne Jenner, Rebecca Johnston and Jillian Saulnier.
During their seasons at Cornell, all had the chance to participate in fundraising games for DIFD. Said chance was enhanced by the privilege of playing alongside a strong and inspiring person in Morgan Richardson. Along with her mom Stephanie, the two helped launch DIFD following the tragic loss of Morgan’s sister Daron Richardson to mental illness. Saulnier reflects on the experience of having called Morgan a teammate,
“I had the pleasure of playing with Morgan for three years at Cornell and to be able to be a part of DIFD along her side was very empowering. She is a wonderful hockey player and certainly one of the strongest young women I have ever met.”
With its earliest roots in Ottawa, Ontario, the city that the Richardson family had called home at the time, DIFD has become a cause with a special place in the hearts of many in the hockey community. When Morgan committed to NCAA hockey at Cornell University (which also saw her father Luke become head coach of the AHL’s Binghamton Senators), DIFD found a new audience, ready to show their proud support.
Since then, the players whose lives have been touched by DIFD and a proud friendship with Morgan and the rest of the Richardson family have opted to expand its scope and carry on the message of hope into their professional careers. In addition to the Inferno, the Boston Pride, one of the NWHL’s four founding franchises held their own DIFD night, as Big Red alums Alyssa Gagliardi and Lauren Slebodnick helped to organize it.
Such a rally for support for DIFD by the Cornell alumnae was testament to the positive impact that the cause and the Richardson family had in the lives of these remarkable young athletes. Considering that one’s teammates at the collegiate level tend to be lifelong friends, truly a second family, it is heartwarming to see that DIFD shall always hold a special place in their hearts. As Cudmore looks back on how her life was impacted by playing alongside Richardson, a feeling of admiration comes to the surface,
“I never knew Daron, but knowing Mo has taught me a lot about how to be a better teammate. In fact Mo is one of the best teammates that I have ever had. When she would come in the dressing room and ask “hey how is it going?” you could feel that unlike the other 25 times you get asked that per day in passing, she was genuinely waiting to hear your reply.
No matter what day of the week, time of the day, or juncture of the season, you knew that she was actually interested in how you were at that moment. She always cared to listen and that is something that to incorporate into my own character as best as possible.”
Considering that purple was Daron’s favorite color, it would become the official color of DIFD, one that the Inferno paid tribute to by sporting purple jerseys for their fundraising contest against Les Canadiennes de Montreal. Afterwards, the game-worn purple jerseys were auctioned online, with all proceeds going towards mental health research.
Prior to the game, Campbell and several Inferno players made an appearance at a local school, where a dear friend teaches. It was an opportunity to speak about mental illness and also a chance to discuss encouragement and the support networks that can help contribute to mental wellness.
Joining them at this event was Sheldon Kennedy, a former NHL skater with the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins. Having helped form the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre, he works tirelessly in the community as his admirable organization reinforces the positive message to children that there is no shame in seeking help for a mental health related issue and that they do not need to feel alone.
As a side note, the Child Advocacy Centre logo was also prominent on the Inferno’s DIFD jerseys. In addition, the children from the local school made posters which were displayed throughout Winsport Arena as the Inferno graced the rink in their purple jerseys for their fundraiser. It was an element that Cudmore found heartwarming.
“The DIFD game was so great for so many reasons. The kids from the school did an amazing job with the posters that decorated the rink. A bunch of the Inferno players have been in their school for the past few weeks.
Led by Jess Campbell, they helped raise awareness for youth mental health. Seeing all of them at the game out to support us at the culmination of that process meant a lot. The energy the fans brought translated into a ton of on ice energy and intensity which made the experience great from an athletic perspective as well.”
Another event that proved to be significant in raising awareness about the event was due to the kindness of the Calgary Flames. All donating their time, Campbell was accompanied by teammates Bailey Bram, Cornell alum Cudmore and Jacqui Pierri. The chance for them to speak about the event at a Calgary Flames contest in early February and meet the fans was an experience that truly yielded positive results.
Not only did the Inferno have a table near the concessions, which featured pamphlets and the players donned in the exciting purple jerseys, it reflected a true feeling of community. Cudmore was very grateful for the support of the Flames in allowing them the gracious opportunity to raise awareness about mental health and the DIFD fundraiser.
“We had a lot of fun at the game! Moving forward, we want to have the Flames and the Inferno work together more and more on important projects like this. It was great to be able to have access to their fan base and speak about our hockey club and also the great cause we were supporting.”
During a stoppage in play at the Flames contest, Campbell and Bailey Bram were part of an interview that was shown on the big screen at the Saddledome. Having also called Campbell a teammate at the national team level, Bram was more than glad to donate her time and assist in her valiant effort.
“It meant the world to me to help Jess out. I know it is something that hits close to home for Jess and something she is very passionate about. Jess has done such an amazing job organizing and ensuring everything goes smoothly for the game while also raising awareness in the community and I am so proud of her.”
Gaining the win for the Inferno in the contest, goaltender Delayne Brian made 21 saves as purple power was prominent in a 4-2 win against Les Canadiennes de Montreal. Said win would foreshadow great things to come for the Inferno as they would defeat Les Canadiennes in the Clarkson Cup finals. As one of the Inferno players that also attended the local school to meet students and speak about DIFD, Brian was proud to see so many of the students show their kind support for such a great cause.
“The most enjoyable part of the whole event was the support we received from the school and the rest of the Inferno fans. We had about 1850 people at the game and most of them were wearing purple to show their support and pride for mental health and Daron.
We ended up raising thousands of dollars for mental health through the sales of our jerseys as well, so overall it was a great event! Jess Campbell put a TON into making this work so all the credit goes to her.”
With a record number of fans in attendance at Winsport Arena, highlighted by the student’s posters, it was a remarkable example of how the community can work together and create something positive and lasting. As the eradication of the stigmas and judgments concerning mental health will only help to make mental wellness a reality for all members of the community, the strong women of the Calgary Inferno contributed to more than just the feel-good moment of the 2015-16 CWHL season, but to an event that embodies friendship and goodwill, which makes everyone a winner.
“All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated”