Jackets alumni shine spotlight on mental health awareness in inaugural event

FOX Sports Ohio broadcaster Jody Shelley drops the puck for the start of a hockey game in honor of Daron Richardson and the DIFD Foundation.

Renee Jordan

Hockey can build unbreakable bonds, none stronger than those among teammates. This Friday, proof of what those bonds can do will be on display at the Blue Jackets Alumni Association kickoff event focusing on mental health awareness.

Dublin’s Mark Heneman met one of his first teammates, Daron Richardson, playing youth hockey.

"We played together my second year of mite and my first year of squirt," Heneman said. "(Daron) loved to play hockey, she loved to be one of the guys, she was very competitive. She fit in very well."

But it wasn’t just on ice that Daron made an impact. Heneman, who is now in his freshman year at The Ohio State University, and plays hockey with the school’s club team, remembers how their friendship began.

"Daron was special," Heneman said. "She was quiet, and I was kind of quiet too, we were able to bond through that. She had the biggest heart, she was very nice, kind and friendly."

As the daughter of a professional hockey player – Daron’s father, Luke, played 190 of his 1,417 NHL career games with the Blue Jackets – her family eventually left Columbus when Luke went on to play in Toronto, Tampa Bay and Ottawa.

But her Columbus teammates never forgot her, and, in Nov. 2010 they received the tragic news that Daron had taken her own life.

"One of my buddies freshman year sent me a text," Heneman said. "I hadn’t had contact with Daron for a couple years, but when I’d think back on my hockey career I’d think about her. The news was shocking."

SALUTE TO TROOPS

Luke and his wife Stephanie, to help deal with their grief, formed a non-profit organization called "Do It for Daron" (DIFD) dedicated to raising awareness and driving conversations about mental health issues.

"You don’t know where to start with grieving," Luke said. "We turned to our community — people we’d met through hockey. Now we’re building another community around mental health. We want DIFD to be a symbol that helps get rid of the stigma of mental health issues."

Luke says DIFD is completely youth driven. He says the effort of spreading the word has come from those who knew Daron, including schoolmates, friends and the hockey world.

And while DIFD had a strong following in Canada, it took Daron’s friends and teammates, many of whom now played for Dublin-area high schools to bring the program to central Ohio.

"We had heard about DIFD, and benefit games in Ottawa," Heneman said. "Our team (at Dublin Coffman) had so many people who played with her so we decided to do the game and the goal of the game was to promote DIFD and mental health awareness."

SCORING SMILES

Luke heard the game was happening through some of the players’ parents.

"It’s what I’m most proud of," Luke said. "The youth has come forward and said we’re not going to stand for it anymore. These kids are proud to make it more of a conversation."

On Jan. 24 of last year, two Dublin teams were decked out in purple, Daron’s favorite color and the signature color of DIFD, to play hockey and it drew the attention of some Blue Jackets, including Jody Shelley.

"I was just blown away by how affected (the kids) were and how proud they were to wear the DIFD purple bracelets," Shelley said. "Just being aware of mental health issues and how important it was to talk and listen, we were all rocked by the emotion at that puck drop."

STORY BEHIND THE CANNON

After seeing the impact of the game, when it came time to bring together Jacket alumni for their first formal event, Shelley’s thoughts returned immediately to the work of the Richardsons through DIFD.

"This whole thing of being able to talk about feelings and not be judged if you’re not feeling right, it’s something we want to get behind," Shelley said. "It’s going to be our signature cause for the alumni right now. We are really behind this with one of our alumni being affected in such a major way."

The alumni have turned to many of the players from last year’s game and organized a benefit hockey game Friday night preceding the Jackets game versus the Vancouver Canucks. There will be a reception in the Founder’s Club at Nationwide Arena, and jerseys worn during the DIFD game will be auctioned off, there will be a ceremonial puck drop, and an in-game PSA.

Jackets alumni who will be participating in the game that will go two 20-minute periods include Shelley, Andrew Cassels, Chris Clark, Brett Harkins, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, Fredrik Modin and Martin Spanhel.

With a short bench, Shelley may still add some players to the roster and there’s already some banter about which team may come out on top.

"The shorter the game, the better it goes for the alumni because they have the skill and the talent," Richardson joked. "The longer the game goes, the better off the young guys will be."

Heneman is diplomatic with his assessment.

"I’m not too sure who will win," Heneman said. "The Jackets alumni are light numbers, [but] they’re still former NHL players. It’ll be interesting to see if fresh legs can outskate them."

Regardless of the final outcome on the scoreboard, Shelley says he knows what will make the evening a success.

"This is all about awareness," Shelley said. "If we can help one person walk away from the event and say "you know what, I do need to talk to someone" or "I can listen to someone more" or "maybe this person just needs me to listen," I think that would be the most positive result."

The alumni game begins at 3 p.m. in the OhioHealth Ice Haus. The game is followed by a ticketed reception at 5 p.m. and the on-ice match between the Blue Jackets and the Vancouver Canucks at 7 p.m. For more information on "Do It For Daron" visit www.difd.com. For more information on the Blue Jackets mental health awareness night including the pre-game reception visit www.bluejackets.com/Hockeytalks