Pandas hockey joins the mental health battle

Saturday's game vs Calgary will also be a mental health fundraiser.


This Saturday, Jan. 30, at Clare Drake Arena, the Pandas hockey team will be fighting a fierce battle both on and off the ice. When the puck drops at 6 p.m., the Pandas will not only clash with their provincial rivals, the Calgary Dinos, but at the same time the University of Alberta student-athletes will join the front lines of raising support, money and awareness towards mental health.

The “mental health match-up” will feature the Pandas wearing specially designed jerseys on the ice, while a number of activities will be happening in the stands and on the concourse to help raise money and awareness for mental health initiatives. Everyone at The Drake on Saturday will be encouraged to participate in the 50/50 raffle, and “chuck-a-puck” and “loonie stick” contests, with proceeds going directly towards mental health support, including the U of A’s campaign, and opening a Student Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI) chapter at the U of A.

The fundraising and awareness game has become an annual Pandas hockey tradition, which in the past has benefited ovarian cancer research, as well as the Zebra Child Protection Centre in Edmonton.

“I think that it is amazing what our team is doing and how hard we are working for this fundraiser game,” said sophomore Pandas defender Jessie Olfert. “The level of involvement of each girl, especially our veterans and their excitement about this game, is so inspiring. Having the opportunity to give back and reach out to help those in need gives us the opportunity to realize that there is more to life than just sports and school. This helps us to develop leadership and people skills and also allows us to be more involved in the community of the U of A and in Edmonton.”

The fundraising game has always had a personal connection for the Pandas hockey program, including supporting ovarian cancer research as a tribute to Denise Hilworth, mother of Pandas alumnus and former assistant coach Sarah Hilworth. This year’s effort continues that personal connection, as Olfert herself was recently diagnosed with clinical depression. Originally from Penticton, B.C., and a member of the provincial team before moving to Edmonton to attend the U of A and play for the Pandas, Olfert now has another challenge to overcome.

“Sharing my story is important to me for many reasons, and dealing with depression is something I have to face every day,” said Olfert. “Being open and honest about what I am going through has helped me in accepting that it’s OK to not be OK. I hope that by sharing my story I can help encourage those who are going through a dark time to be open with those around them and seek out help. It is so important to know that you are not alone; there are many people who are supportive and understand what it's like to go through mental health issues. Since I have been able to share my story I have felt so much support and love from my family, friends and teammates.”

“Being a Panda,” she continued, “is more than just being a part of a team; it’s about being a family. And being a student-athlete at the U of A has brought many joys and challenges into my life. There are many pressures that arise from being a student-athlete; you feel the need to impress your coaches, trainers, parents, teammates, friends and professors. Student-athletes are held to an incredibly high standard and often feel extra pressure. Between balancing schoolwork, practices, workouts, healthy eating, sleeping and finding time to have a social life, it can seem as if there are not enough hours in a day.”

To that end, the Pandas hockey program connected with the Student Athlete Mental Health Initiative (SAMHI), an organization dedicated to helping student-athletes find local mental health support and resources on campuses across Canada. SAMHI originated in Ontario, but has since opened chapters in Atlantic Canada, and now the Pandas want to help spearhead a chapter in Edmonton. Proceeds from the Jan. 30 game will go towards that goal, as well as to the U of A’s own mental health campaign which started in October 2015 and has already raised over $61,000.

“Student-athletes helping student-athletes is so important in the university world,” noted Olfert. “Being a student-athlete, you become a part of something more than just the university community, you add to the dynamics and culture of the school. As student-athletes we need to stick together and support each other, whether it’s helping out by giving notes from the class someone missed for a game, or giving someone a quick spot at the gym. We often share some of the same experiences and challenges, and being able to offer support and provide an accepting environment can help each athlete to reach their fullest potential. SAMHI helps create that environment, and they are in place to help each student-athlete in whatever way is needed.”

The on-ice battle is important this weekend as well, as the Pandas are in a fight for first place in Canada West. The defending conference champion Pandas currently sit in second place with 38 points, three points behind conference leading UBC and just one point ahead of third-place Regina. Calgary, meanwhile, is eighth in the Canada West standings but has beaten Alberta once this season already. The two teams played a home-and-home series in November, with the Pandas winning 8-2 in Edmonton before losing 2-1 the next night in Calgary.

Game one of this series is Friday, Jan. 29 in Calgary. The “mental health match-up” and second game of the series is scheduled for this Saturday in Edmonton with a 6 p.m. start time. Both games can be watched live online at canadawest.tv