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You can tell Lois Mitchell cares deeply about the Canadian sports ecosystem because she even sympathizes with referees.

“Don’t laugh for me, I care about referees. I do,” Mitchell said. “Why can’t we respect them and give them encouragement?”

Mitchell, 83, comes from a family steeped in sports. A former physical education teacher, Mitchell coached various sports and is now on the board of Football Canada.

Her husband Doug Mitchell, who died in July, was a former CFL player who went on to serve as commissioner for four years in the 1980s. Her son, Scott Mitchell, co-founded the Canadian Premier soccer league.

And so it should come as no surprise that when Olympic silver medallist and Canada Sports Hall of Fame president Cheryl Bernard approached Mitchell about supporting Beyond The Win, an education program promoting youth sports, Mitchell didn’t hesitate.

“It’s important to encourage young people to really build upon the skills that they develop as an athlete. It’s all about fitness, it’s all about teamwork and I think it’s leadership skills that will last them a lifetime,” Mitchell said.

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Wickenheiser gets call

Mitchell announced her backing last week for the Education Endowment Campaign, which Bernard says has raised nearly $2 million in support of Beyond The Win. Its ultimate goal is to raise $8 million.

Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame’s 2022 induction ceremony takes place on Thursday, with Adam Van Koeverden, Brian Williams, Dwayne De Rosario, Edward Lennie, Hayley Wickenheiser, John Tavares, Tim McIsaac, Tricia Smith, the Chatham Coloured All-Stars and the Preston Rivulettes all getting the call.

Beyond The Win provides digital lessons from Hall of Famers to schools nationwide. One such example includes Willie O’Ree talking about facing racism in hockey.

“Teachers can go in and go, ‘OK, this aligns with the curriculum in Alberta’ and now there’s activities that follow it, questions for the students and the kids can learn about racism and how Willie overcame it,” Bernard said.

Mitchell said Wickenheiser, who works two full-time jobs as a doctor and assistant general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, is a shining example of the adaptability sports teaches.

“I think adaptability in life is the most important skill or behavioural trait anybody can have because it means that, you know what, you admit to failure. Hey, that one didn’t work but guess what, I’m gonna try this one. And that’s really what life’s all about,” Mitchell said.

At the outset of the pandemic, Wickenheiser also teamed up with Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds in a campaign to “conquer COVID-19.”

“That’s what she does, she exemplifies the strong values of giving back,” Mitchell said. “It doesn’t matter to her, it’s all about if she’s able to do something and make a difference. And she’s always been like that ever since I’ve known her.”

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Wickenheiser promotes a donation drive for personal protective equipment in April 2020. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Bernard noted that examples like Wickenheiser are critical for girls who either haven’t considered joining a team or are on the precipice of dropping out.

She cited a “shocking” statistic that 70 per cent of girls drop out of sport by age 17.

“If you can educate on the value of sport and it’s not to be an Olympian, it’s not to be a world champion, it’s just on the values learned through playing recreation sport or team sport in school, then I think people will commit to staying longer,” Bernard said.

Role models key for girls in sports

Bernard, an accomplished pro curler, said she considered dropping out of sports entirely in high school, when the allure of a greater social life tugged at her to give up odd-hour practices.

It was a combination of her active parents, who also curled, and advice from a friend that convinced her to keep going.

“She said I would give my right arm to have the opportunity you had to play sport and grow up that way. She said don’t ever quit it for parties or for any other such thing, and I never did.”

Studies show that 5 per cent of Fortune 500 CEOs have played organized sport beyond high school, and 96 per cent of high school dropouts did not play organized sport, per a press release announcing Mitchell’s backing.

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Le May Doan, centre, is CEO of Sport Calgary. (The Canadian Press/Larry MacDougal/File)

Olympic speed skater Catriona Le May Doan now serves as CEO of Sport Calgary. Nancy Knowlton, who starred on the Bishop’s basketball team, founded the company Smart Technologies.

“I see so many females out there that played sport and then transitioned into CEO roles or high-level roles. I believe the confidence that sport gave them, that gave them the ability to believe that they could do what was coming next,” Bernard said.

The Beyond The Win program will also focus on safe sport, which has come further into focus amid the Hockey Canada scandal and other national sport organizations facing allegations of abuse.

“I know that with football that’s our No. 1 priority, I know that. And I think that more and more we’re going to see more I think emphasis put on safe sport,” Mitchell said.

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