A veteran Toronto Police officer was among three finalists for the inaugural Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award, presented at the National Hockey League awards on June 20 in Las Vegas.
Named after the league’s diversity ambassador, the NHL’s first black player, the award was established to recognize individuals who best utilize hockey as a platform for participants to “build character and develop important life skills for a more positive family experience.”
Constable Debbie Bland, who joined the Service 18 years ago, was surprised by the honour.
“I was incredibly humbled by the nomination,” said the officer, assigned to the Emergency Management and Public Order Unit. “I was blown away when I got the call that I was a finalist.”
Twenty-five years ago, Bland helped start the Etobicoke Dolphins Girls Hockey League.
“My parents aspired for me to go into figure skating, but I wanted to play hockey instead,” she said. “At the time, there wasn’t a girls’ organization in Etobicoke. Later on, a gentleman came along with a vision for establishing a league for girls. That’s how the organization emerged.”
Bland has been a coach, mentor and teacher to hundreds of girls who have passed through the program.
“Working with the Dolphins is a very passionate part of my life,” she pointed out. “Many of them have been quite successful in life and are giving back to the community. That has been most rewarding for me.”
Bland learned about the nomination just two weeks after her nine-year granddaughter – Abbey Tran – succumbed on May 1 to a deadly and rare blood disorder.
She and her family have received considerable support from the Dolphins organization during the tragic period.
“I was Abbey’s coach from the time she was three years old,” said Bland. “She wanted to be a hockey player… She was everything to me.”