Phil Von Unruh was named a Capital News’ Community Leader of the Year winner in the coach category at the 4th Annual Kelowna Capital News Community Leader Awards, held at Okanagan College, Oct. 23, 2017. The Community Leader Awards are given to local members of the community who demonstrate exceptional commitment and leadership.
A decade ago, with no hockey teams in Kelowna designed for special needs kids, Phil Von Unruh decided to take matters into his own hands.
So in 2006, Von Unruh rented ice time at Prospera Place and the Central Okanagan Wildcats special hockey program was born.
His oldest son, Kalen, who has autism, was one of six players to pull on hockey equipment for that first practise and Von Unruh’s vision has been evolving ever since.
Through his initiative, other special needs hockey programs in the B.C. interior are now operating in Vernon, Penticton and Kamloops.
“It’s very satisfying, especially when you see all the teams we now have playing and the fact that we also have a year-end tournament,” Phil said. “When you look at pictures of that first year, we didn’t even have jerseys, the kids were wearing hoodies.
“It was a pretty rudimentary start you could say,” he added, “so it’s nice to see the growth we’ve had here and other parts of the province.”
And last year, Von Unruh created an adult team—the Okanagan Wild—for players 16 years of age and older, most of whom have moved up from the Wildcats’ program.
Susan Noble, a parent of one of the Wildcats’ players, has praise for Von Unruh and his selfless contributions to amateur sport in Kelowna.
“His larger-than-life, kindhearted personality makes it possible for all the players to experience success and have fun at the same time,” Noble said of Von Unruh’s impact. “Without Phil’s dedication, enthusiasm and hard work, the opportunity for many of Kelowna’s special needs children to play hockey and be part of a team would not exist.”
In addition to coaching hockey in winter, Von Unruh remains busy year-round as a volunteer, coaching Special Olympics bowling, track and field and soccer.
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