College hockey: Saint Michael's seniors Danny Divis and Justin McKenzie win 2017 Hockey Humanitarian Award
It was back in July 2015 when Saint Michael’s seniors Danny Divis and Justin McKenzie were stuck in traffic heading back to campus in Vermont after visiting friends in Boston.
Trying to find a topic to kill the time, the pair began to talk about how McKenzie lost a high school friend of his — Timothy Hamlet, who ran track in college, committed suicide earlier that summer. Divis could relate, since he had experienced the loss of a family member from suicide as well. The pair, who have been roommates since their freshman year began brainstorming about what they could do to help advocate for mental health awareness.
The conversation sparked discussion about what they could do in order to make an impact. So they emailed their coach to suggest hosting an awareness night during a home game. Their coach, Damian DiGiulian, along with the school's athletic director, encouraged them to take the idea even a step further. After a few more emails were sent, they knew they wanted to focus on providing mental health resources and education to student-athletes.
“We wanted to set something up where our student-athletes could get access to resources and also stigmatize being scared to open up or step up when they see an issue in others,” McKenzie said.
And in turn, the creation of Hope Happens Here was formed.
The duo found out over spring break they won the Hockey Humanitarian Award, which is given each year to college hockey’s finest citizen — a student-athlete who makes significant contributions not only to his or her team but also to the community-at-large through leadership in volunteerism. Divis and McKenzie are the first ever co-recipients of the award.
On Friday evening they accepted their award in Chicago as part of the Frozen Four festivities. They gave a speech with their coach and families in the crowd. Divis added that the speech might be uncomfortable for some people, but the message is too important not to share.
Throughout the school year and hockey season, they balanced being student-athletes and dedicating their free time to talking to high schools around the area.
“We were worried about how these kids were perceived us, but we did a 45-minute presentation on mental health and afterwords kids went up to us and were emotional and telling us how we changed the way they thought about it,” Divis said. “It was a rural area, and they spoke about how that wasn’t something they would talk about, so to know we may have made a change there is awesome.”
Both are also members of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, which helped create a student support network for learning and teaching others how to be empathetic. Both said they have received support from others, but they have stressed that they aren't professional therapists but want to help as much as people and guide people to the correct resources they need.
“It was a lot of work, but we were pretty passionate about it,” Divis said.
“It’s not that I am looking for sympathy,” McKenzie said. “But just that I feel that it is important and that I don’t want what happened to my friend to happen again.”
Hope Happens Here helped create “awareness games” for various sports, where during breaks they would talk about mental health statistics and advertise resources and options.
Divis talked about how it can often be difficult for student athletes to speak up about mental health issues, for various reason, but one being the “jock culture.”
“You have the pressure to be very tough, at least in hockey it’s a huge thing, and in other sports as well. It’s not even physically but mentally, so talking about your issues becomes lame and not cool," he said. "So I think that it’s a big thing for student-athletes and one of the main reasons we wanted to do this.”
Both are graduating in May with degrees. Divis hopes to take the year off to play hockey in Europe and then head to law school. McKenzie plans to jump right into the workforce, hoping to get a job designing websites and apps.
Despite Divis and McKenzie leaving the Saint Michael's campus, there will be seven student-athletes who will foresee the future of Hope Happens Here, and the legacy of these award winners will continue to live on.