Hockey HEROS from the troubled inner city
Producing and directing a documentary about a hockey team from a troubled area in Toronto with kids who had never played before was a project that appealed to me immensely. But I never anticipated how much emotional resonance the story would generate, not just for me, but for everyone involved in its making.
Much of my work on W5 deals with the dark side of life -- criminals, con artists, families coping with appalling loss, greedy corporations, debilitating illness, bureaucratic indifference -- the list goes on and on. Those stories are the bedrock of W5's reputation for hard-hitting journalism. But occasionally, we find a story that explores the positive side of life and reminds us there are some amazingly good people out there.
At W5, we call them Inspirational Stories. Brookview Middle School in Toronto and its HEROS hockey program was one of the best.
Making Heroes from HEROS
The HEROS -- the Hockey Education Reaching Out Society -- started in Vancouver and has spread across the country. It's aimed at young people from poor neighbourhoods. Donations from the National Hockey League Players Association and corporations like Telus pay for equipment and ice time, but the coaches are all volunteers.
Two years ago, the HEROS came to Brookview, a public school with more than 500 students in grades six, seven and eight. It's located right in the middle of Toronto's notorious Jane-Finch neighbourhood. Home to around 75,000 people from over a hundred countries, this is a fractured community with more than its share of poverty, unemployment, gangs, drugs and death. This is where 15-year-old Jordan Manners, who once attended Brookview, was gunned down in 2007 and several other young people have been murdered in the vicinity of the school.
That atmosphere of violence and death has tainted the lives of many of the students, a sad reality that Brookview's vice principal, Mark Babiy has to deal with every day.
"These kids see a lot," he said in an interview with W5. "They go through an awful lot and some of them don't necessarily see themselves living past 18 and that's a very unfortunate thing."
It's a bleak view of life that Babiy and Brookview's principal, Karl Subban, have been trying to change over the past four years. Part of that effort included introducing the HEROS Hockey Program two years ago.
"One of the goals we had here when we started out was to change the image of the school," Subban told W5. "And hockey has certainly helped us do that. If people see this school in a more positive light, then kids will see themselves in a more positive light."
Visiting Brookview for the first time, you're not immediately aware that this school is different. On the outside it looks like a typical public school anywhere in urban Canada -- a mid-1960s building, designed more for function than beauty, similar, in fact, to the middle school my own children attended. But Brookview is a true reflection of Canada's multi-cultural society with students who've come from backgrounds as diverse as Africa, the Caribbean, Asia, Latin America and Europe. And like any bunch of boys and girls in early adolescence, they're noisy, boisterous and full of life.
Then you notice the uniforms, smaller classes and a staff who are out in the corridors engaging with students, gently cajoling them to get to class on time.
And then you spot the quieter kids, more than in other schools, the ones who seem detached, the ones who are still wandering the corridors after classes begin, and you realize that this school deals with problems that go way beyond teaching courses in a classroom, problems that have no simple solutions.
I realized that to tell the story of the Hockey HEROS on W5, we would also have to go much further, get inside the minds of the people involved, and tell the story of Brookview School and the tough neighbourhood area from which it draws its students.
Getting Down to Business
When Associate Producer Chad Derrick and I began researching W5's documentary in the summer of 2009, we realized very quickly we would have to follow the HEROS for the entire season.
Most of the 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls in the program had never played hockey before; some had never even worn skates. We decided the best way to capture the special moments of their adventure in hockey was to record a month by month progression. That meant a commitment to drop in on the school and the ice rink used at York University, every few weeks from October 2009 to the end of the hockey season in March 2010. That way, not only could we document the change as kids who could barely skate became masters of the ice, we could also get to know them.
Some of the students in the program could be classified as "at risk", meaning they could be tempted by crime, or join one of the gangs that plague the Jane-Finch area. Two Toronto police officers, Detective Jon Ling and Constable Bryan Thomas, who volunteer as coaches for the HEROS, gave us their perspective on how that happens.
"The selling of drugs, mugging individuals on the street, armed robberies, that's the easy money," said Thomas. "You don't need an education for that. But it's a lifestyle that lives hard, it lives fast and it's very temporary."
Not all the kids in HEROS are in danger of slipping into crime. In fact, most were chosen for other reasons -- skipping classes, problems with concentration, bullying or being bullied, aggression, lack of self-esteem, or just feeling left out of the crowd.
Twelve year-old Kody Cummings, for example, a little guy who had trouble making friends, used to wander in and out of class, interrupting teachers and making a nuisance of himself.
"I was doing that because I wanted to get attention," he told W5. "Now that I got into HEROS, I don't need to do that anymore."
The HEROS aim to give students like Kody a focus, the discipline of showing up every Tuesday for practice, and the camaraderie that comes from playing on a team. It's a kind of a soft-sell approach to influencing behaviour -- if you're having fun, changing your outlook on life isn't so hard.
And sometimes that involves a bit of stick as well as carrot. Another 12-year-old, Thomas Peate, once had problems concentrating in class, but playing with the HEROS for two years has transformed him.
"Before I was in hockey I wasn't listening to my teachers a lot and not doing my work," he said. "Then when I joined hockey, they said that if I don't do good in school I can't play hockey. So I try my best in school and when it comes to the ice, I play my best."
He played so well he was one of the lucky 15 HEROS chose to represent Brookview in the school's first and only hockey team. In fact, Brookview is the first school ever in the entire Jane-Finch area to have a hockey team.
They played four games against other schools, often against players who had been skating since they could walk. Not surprisingly, the odds were always against the Brookview HEROS.
"It was disappointing for them, I think, that they played four games, and never scored a goal, that they never won a game," said Mark Babiy, who coached the HEROS for the whole season. "But by the end of it, they started to play as a team."
But winning or losing was never what the HEROS were really about. It was more about giving drifting lives a focus, something to look forward to.
"I think the kids are excited to come to school," said Mark Babiy. "On Tuesdays, when we go to hockey, they're even more exited."
But as spring approached, the hockey season wound down and the HEROS hung up their skates on March 9. Some students will return to play again next year, others move on to high school. It's a new chapter and challenge in their lives they can face with confidence thanks to the lessons learned from the HEROS hockey program.
"Some of these kids started out as real handful," said Mark Babiy. "And in a short two years, they started turning out to be really, really fine young men and young women."
Bringing It All Together
To show the progress from individuals struggling on ice to a team of real hockey players, and document the personal progress of some of the HEROS, we shot almost 40 high definition discs between October, 2009 and March, 2010. Each disc holds 40 minutes of video, so we ended up with more than 26 hours of video for a documentary that is approximately 20 minutes in length.
It was impossible to include every scene, every interview, or individual HERO, no matter how much we wanted to, so we had to make some hard decisions. In fact, when Mark Babiy and his colleagues were choosing students for the HEROS program, they faced similar tough choices. They had over 200 applicants, kids who all deserved to be chosen, but the HEROS had room for just over 30.
"It was very, very difficult," said Babiy. "I think in the end you let the heart decide."
For me, as producer of the documentary, the decisions about what to use and what to drop were dictated not so much by the heart, but more by the necessity of making the story clear for television. I had to cast a very cold eye over the hours of video.
The audience would be seeing the documentary for the first time, so the progression of the HEROS from October to March had to be clear and simple. Too much detail, too many interviews, and viewers would lose track. Individual personalities wouldn't have a chance to reveal themselves in a cacophony of voices. That meant concentrating on a main character like Mark Babiy to drive the story, and allowing other personalities to emerge by exploring a more in-depth background with only a handful of the students and volunteers involved with the HEROS.
Whether it all worked in the end is up to our audience to decide. But, to bring the story down to its simplest level, if Canadians can see good people doing good things in an area of Toronto known mostly for bad things, we will have succeeded.