Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award Finalist: Mark Burgin

The Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award presented by Hyundai is given to an individual who, through hockey, has positively impacted his or her community culture or society. The award honors O'Ree, the former NHL forward who became the first Black player to play in the NHL on Jan. 18, 1958, and has spent more than two decades as the NHL's diversity ambassador. After a public voting period and votes from O'Ree, NHL executives and Hyundai executives, the winner will be announced in June. There will be a winner from the United States and one from Canada. Today, a look at one of three Canada finalists, Mark Burgin:

Mark Burgin had an epiphany somewhere between helping coach his children, volunteering on hockey boards and opening his home to players and teams whenever they needed it.

"I've been coaching and mentoring quite a while, you name the sport, I've coached it," Burgin said. "I've been in sport my whole life. If I could formalize something, I could get more people involved who actually believed in what I was doing to help more kids."

Two years ago, Burgin established Diversity Athletics Society, a nonprofit aimed at keeping youth involved in hockey and other sports despite financial obstacles and to promote diversity and inclusion.

"It's just providing mentorship, guidance, introductory grassroots to the sport, support, a place for kids to ask questions," Burgin said. "For me, it's an opportunity to provide education on things we just don't know, things we want to learn, things we want to know, how do we coexist, how do we treat other people in this sport."

Burgin's work made him one of three finalists for the Willie O'Ree Community Hero Award in Canada. The winner, who will be named in June, will receive a $25,000 prize to be donated to the charity of their choice, with the other two finalists each receiving a $5,000 prize donated to a charity of their choice.

Mark Burgin with players

For the past 16 years, Burgin has been actively involved in hockey through Diversity Athletics Society as a board member and coach in the Semiahmoo Ravens Minor Hockey Association serving White Rock and South Surrey, British Columbia, and on the board of BC Hockey, the steward of amateur hockey at all levels in British Columbia and Yukon.

In January 2023, he was named to BC Hockey's first-ever diversity, equity and inclusion working group.

"He brings perspective because he brings perspective of someone who has been on the ground in the performance end of the game for a very long time," said BC Hockey CEO Cameron Hope, assistant general manager and vice president of hockey operations for the New York Rangers from 2004-05 to 2010-11.

"And he's all about trying to translate that to grassroots hockey. Whether you're a high-performance athlete or a 6-year-old wobbling around on your ankles, you're getting the right information, and you fall in love with the game and stay in love with the game. That's how Mark is. That's his thing."

Burgin fell in love with hockey when his family moved from London to Winnipeg in 1976. He didn't like Winnipeg's bitterly cold and snowy winters, but said he had no problem putting on layers to go outside to skate or play shinny.

"We just were playing hockey live every little kid does in the winter, on the pond, on the Assiniboine River, where you can skate from one end of the city to the next," he said.

Mark Burgin WHL Players

The sport became a family passion. His 17-year-old son, Miles Burgin, was a center for Surrey of the British Columbia Hockey League last season. A 23-year-old nephew, Drake Burgin, was a defenseman for St. Lawrence University, an NCAA Division I program in Canton, New York.

Raising and coaching players of color, Burgin said he saw the need for hockey to become more welcoming and inclusive. The key to making it happen is to mentor and have conversations with young players and let them ask questions about anything without feeling judged.

"A lot of maltreatment toward other players peaks between the ages of 15 and 18 because there's a lack of conversation," he said. "I tell them, 'If you have any questions about anything, about race, about stereotypes'… It opens up a conversation. They'll understand what it's like being a minority because they're able to ask any single question."

Diversity Athletics Society also has a mentorship group that includes retired NHL forward Anthony Stewart; Blake Bolden, a pro scout and Growth and Inclusion specialist for the Los Angeles Kings; and Todd McMillon, a retired cornerback who played for the Chicago Bears and the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League.

Stewart chairs Hockey Equality, a nonprofit organization that seeks to grow hockey by lowering financial and other barriers that impact BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and female youth.

"Mark goes above and beyond in mentoring some of the young athletes," Stewart said. "It's one thing to talk about, 'Hey, yeah, I'm trying to make a difference and impact some young Black players.' He's putting his money where his mouth is."

Mark Burgin and EJ Emery

And opening his home to players like Cayden Lindstrom, an 18-year-old forward for Medicine Hat of the Western Hockey League and ranked No. 3 on NHL Central Scouting's list of North American skaters eligible for the 2024 NHL Draft. Lindstrom arrived in town for Team BC tryouts when he was 15 but didn't have a place to stay. Though barely acquainted with Miles Burgin, the family welcomed him to stay for two weeks.

It was the start of a three-year stay.

"I asked them if I could stay for my U17 year at Delta (Hockey Academy)," Lindstrom said. "The rest is history. They're definitely kind of a second family to me."

Lindstrom said Mark Burgin trained and helped him "by giving me pointers and showing me clip and stuff like that."

"He was always there whenever I needed him," Lindstrom said. "He loves helping kids of color, just kids in general, honestly. He just loves helping out the community."

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