COLCHESTER, Vt. - Saint Michael's College men's ice hockey seniors Danny Divis (Media, Pa./Minnesota Wilderness) and Justin McKenzie (Hawthorne, N.J./Don Bosco Prep) are among a group of six finalists for the 22nd annual Hockey Humanitarian Award, presented by BNY Mellon Wealth Management, the Hockey Humanitarian Award Foundation announced on Thursday.
The duo was among 15 Division I, II and III men's and women's ice hockey players from across the nation put forth for the award this year. As co-nominees, Divis and McKenzie are being considered together for the accolade. In addition to their contributions on the ice, the pair founded Hope Happens Here (HHH), which promotes mental health awareness and wellness among college students, in particular student-athletes.
"It was an incredible feeling to just be nominated, but to make it as a finalist is just unbelievable," said Divis. "Of course, we never would have even been in this position if it wasn't for the overwhelming support from the school and our community - faculty, staff and students alike." McKenzie echoed similar sentiments. "It's honestly surreal," he said. "I was so happy with just being nominated in the first place and getting the foundation some national recognition, but to now be making it to the next round, it's a whirlwind."
The Hockey Humanitarian Award lauds college hockey's finest citizens, student-athletes who make significant contributions not only to their team but also to the community-at-large through leadership in volunteerism. This year's award recipient - or recipients - will be introduced and honored in a ceremony on April 7 in Chicago as part of the men's NCAA Division I Tournament Frozen Four weekend. Additionally, the Hockey Humanitarian Award Foundation will make a donation to the charity most important to each finalist.
Divis and McKenzie join fellow men's ice hockey players John Flint '03 and Alex Higgins '11 as the only Saint Michael's representatives - male or female - to advance to the finalist stage, with Flint and Higgins also doing so during their senior year. Only four non-Division I players have ever earned the honor, with just 2013 recipient Tucker Mullin of Saint Anselm College hailing from Division II. The other finalists for this year's award are all Division I student-athletes: men's players Anders Bjork of the University of Notre Dame, Collin Delia of Merrimack College and David Goodwin of Penn State University, and Mika Nervick of the Quinnipiac University women's ice hockey program.
As juniors in 2015-16, the duo co-founded the campus organization Hope Happens Here (HHH), which they tout on their social media channels is a movement dedicated to "removing the stigma of mental health issues on college campuses." With modest goals at first, they hit the ground running and presented at a local high school and with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) at the University of Vermont, the state's largest school. As the school year moved forward, they held mental health awareness events at home games for various Saint Michael's sports, produced T-shirts that are still worn by many members of the student body, and organized the Pie a Purple Knight fundraiser to promote their cause and raise funds for the organization.
"I don't claim to have any professional experience with the mental health realm other than sharing my own personal story, and if that impacts just one person, the reward is worth all the work we've put into it," said Divis. Both drew upon their own personal experiences as a reason for getting HHH off the ground. "For me personally, it means a lot to be able to commemorate the friends and family I've lost to suicide," said McKenzie. "I hope this exposure influences others, especially in athletics, to open up to mental health and break the stigma surrounding it. More importantly, I hope it shows people that they are never alone in their battles."
They have continued to spread their message this school year, and they keep adding members while holding additional awareness events at sporting events such as field hockey, soccer, basketball and ice hockey. Through Mental Health Awareness Games at men's and women's ice hockey home contests on Jan. 29, HHH raised nearly $4,000 for one of its favorite charities, To Write Love on Her Arms.
"I'm really excited to see what lies ahead for HHH," said McKenzie. "I hope I can take what I've learned and experienced and stay involved in mental health awareness and fundraising. For next year, Dan and I have created a leadership committee that we are working with this semester to help teach them the ropes so it'll be an easy transition for them next year. The leaders are Patrick Doherty and Colin Biebel of men's ice hockey, Andie Devaney of women's soccer, Annie Martin of women's lacrosse, and Peter Kendall and Adrián Díaz of men's soccer. I think a larger group of leaders will help HHH have a bigger outreach on campus, and the passion they have shown to work with us has assured us that we are leaving the foundation in good hands."
Divis and McKenzie were instrumental in the Purple Knights claiming their second Northeast-10 Conference regular-season co-championship in three years this winter. Their team, which claimed a pair of second-place postseason finishes during their careers, has supported various community causes in the past four years, including participating in the Vermont Walk to End Alzheimer's and the Vermont Pride Festival and Parade. One of the Purple Knights' goals in participating in the Pride Parade was to continue supporting the mission of the You Can Play Project, which works to ensure the safety and inclusion of LGBTQ athletes, coaches and fans in sports.
A captain for his senior year and a SAAC member, Divis is one of the highest-scoring defensemen in NCAA Division II/III ice hockey, with four goals and 13 assists this year. For his career, Divis has 47 assists and 64 points in 95 contests. Last year he was lauded with the NE10 Scholar-Athlete Sport Excellence Award and a Capital One NCAA Division II Academic All-District accolade in addition to being selected as all-conference by New England Hockey Conference (NEHC) and NE10 coaches. Divis also earned his second career NE10 Academic All-Conference laurel in a career that saw him land Rookie of the Year honors from two leagues as a first-year.
An unsung hero for the Purple Knights, McKenzie is third on the team in faceoff victories while contributing three goals this winter. In addition to briefly appearing on the wing, McKenzie has centered lines around nine different wings as a senior. An assistant captain, he has been lauded with academic honors nine times during his career. Also an Orientation leader at Saint Michael's, McKenzie is a member of the College's SAAC and is a peer advocate for the campus' Student Support Network.
"Now that HHH has essentially grown tenfold in just one year, I can only hope it will continue to grow once Justin and I graduate," said Divis, "and I'm confident it will."