By Jordan Jacklin
In June 2020, amidst the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality across North America, Rams men’s hockey forward Kyle Bollers used his clothing company Against All Odds to make a difference.
That was when the ‘One’ T-shirt line was created and became a success, generating $1,000 for charity.
The shirt is a basic black colour and has the word ‘One’ on the front. Inside the shirt are words like “family,” “love” and “desire.” The back of the shirt reads “judged by content of my character.”
As a Black hockey player, Bollers designed the shirt with a message of hope and unity in mind.
“It’s meaningful to my family and me and it’s a big part of my life. My dad is African-American and my step dad is Caucasian so it was kind of perfect,” said Bollers when discussing the ‘One’ design.
The brand’s name stems from Bollers’ trials and tribulations in the world of hockey and his determination to succeed in the sport against the odds. Against All Odds, or AAO for short, started as a three letter acronym Bollers used to casually throw around and has now evolved into a brand that strives to face challenges and conquer them.
“I didn’t have an easy path, as I was never a first-line player or Ontario Hockey League (OHL) draft pick. The message just stuck with me,” said Bollers.
The 22-year-old said he’s always been into clothing and starting the company in February 2020 gave him a creative outlet to harness his passion and spread the AAO message.
“The biggest challenge is that hockey’s an expensive sport”
Bollers said he plans to donate the proceeds from the sales of the shirt to the Toronto Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club (BGC), an organization in Toronto that aims to provide youth with accessible opportunities in areas like sport, creative arts and literacy.
Marnie Smith, director of program and services for Kiwanis BGC, emphasized how much donations help impact the children in Kiwanis.
“Any money coming into the club is a huge help to support the work that we do,” she said. “Ninety per cent of our donations go into direct service, so with this specific donation, it could potentially go into sports equipment, activities or nutrition programs.”
A 2019 survey of 1,000 American and Canadian hockey parents conducted by FlipGive and Scotiabank found that 26 per cent of hockey parents in Canada take on another job to help pay for the seasons.
In addition, the same survey found that nearly 41 per cent of hockey parents spend between $5,000 and $10,000 a year on the sport.
“The biggest challenge is that hockey is an expensive sport and there’s a lot of communities where families don’t have enough money. It is hard for them to even get into a game and when they get there, it is hard for them to stay in because of the associated costs,” said Rams men’s hockey forward Elijah Roberts, a longtime friend of Bollers.
Roberts also tackles the topic of racial injustice regularly on Soul on Ice: The Podcast, which he co-hosts alongside film director Kwame Damon Mason and Los Angeles Kings prospect Akil Thomas.
“Both of us have helped a lot of people along the way. We want to change hockey for the next generation of BIPOC players to have the necessary support,” said Roberts. “Getting people more opportunities in low-income areas. In terms of what we’ve been able to do so far, it’s pretty cool.”
There were only 44 active racialized players in the NHL during the 2020-21 season, according to a Global News report. During the 2020-21 NHL season, each team had an active game roster of 23 players and were allowed to carry between four to six players as a “taxi sqaud” due to COVID-19. The NHL is made up of over 700 players, which means that during last season, racialized athletes accounted for less than 10 per cent of the league.
“We want to change hockey for the next generation of BIPOC players”
But the low number of racialized players in the NHL hasn’t hindered the two from chasing their dreams.
Bollers and Roberts played hockey together growing up and their bond has continued to strengthen over the years. This year marks an opportunity for their relationship to continue to grow.
“We haven’t played on the same team since we were little kids, ” said Roberts. “It’s pretty special just being able to go out and play in the same game after this long.”
Bollers joined the Rams after playing with the Brantford 99ers of the Ontario Junior Hockey League (OJHL) in the 2019-20 season. Due to COVID-19, he hasn’t played the sport in a year and a half and says he’s ready to get back on the ice.
“I’ve heard nothing but good things about Ryerson’s program. Their facilities are unbelievable and they have a great organization,” said Bollers. “It’s pretty much like playing in an OHL rink, how could I say no to that?”
As he awaits to suit up for the Rams men’s hockey team in the coming weeks, he remains motivated by the brand he created.
In the upcoming year, Bollers plans on releasing another clothing line to expand the brand. He said he also hopes to do smaller projects within the local community.
It’s an important year ahead for Bollers and Roberts both on and off the ice and they’ll look to continue to triumph in sport and in life, against all odds.