By Julia Peterson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

All week long, youth in Ile-a-la-Crosse, have been buzzing with enthusiasm about an ex-NHL player’s visit to their northern village.

Rich Pilon, who grew up in St. Louis, Sask. before going on to play for the New York Rangers and the St. Louis Blues in his 15-year NHL career, is committed to supporting small Saskatchewan communities like his hometown.

He started a program called Horses and Hockey as a way to support Saskatchewan youth and open the door to important conversations about mental health and wellbeing.

This week, children in Ile-a-la-Crosse have the chance to take horse-drawn sleigh rides through the community during the school day. At night, Pilon leads hockey camps.

“The kids love it,” said youth sports, recreation and culture coordinator Mike Bouvier. “They love the horse rides, and they are so excited about the hockey camp. All I had to say was, ‘Hey, there’s an ex-NHL player here to do hockey camps,’ and that was all they needed to know.

“It’s all they’re talking about this week, the parents are saying.”

This is Pilon’s second visit to Ile-a-la-Crosse with Horses and Hockey. He also came in the summer — though the horses drew a chuckwagon instead of a sleigh, and there was no ice to do hockey camps. Instead, in the evenings, Pilon gave presentations about mental health.

He talked about his own struggles with drugs and alcohol at the end of his NHL career, and how he found his way to sobriety and mental wellbeing. Over the years, Pilon has often spoken about how working with horses and spending time with animals has been key to his own mental health. That’s an important part of why he wants to share those experiences with children in northern Saskatchewan.

When Bouvier heard about Pilon’s work, he was eager to bring him to the community, and found mental health funding from various organizations to make it happen.

He said it’s easy to see the immediate benefit in the joy on the youths’ faces.

“You see these little kids — these little five- or six-year-old kids — going on a sleigh behind these big, huge, massive horses,” he said. “And they’re just amazed at it.”

Bouvier said this program helps young people feel inspired to get involved and put a focus on their physical and mental well-being.

“The kids are so eager to learn from Rich and from each other.”

(Top Photo: Youth in Ile-a-la-Crosse enjoy horse-drawn wagon rides and hockey clinics from former NHL defenseman Rich Pilon, as he works to promote youth mental health. Submitted by Mike Bouvier.)