When Rod Crane received word that he made Canada's National Para Hockey Team, he knew his life would change. He just wasn’t sure how.
The Clarksburg, Ont., native knew his hockey career was about to take off, but when he quit his job to focus full-time on training for the national team in 2018-19, he found an abundance of time in his calendar. After mulling over various ideas, his mother, Christine, mentioned the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Barrie & District.
"I had been looking for a volunteer gig to help me pass the time and keep busy, and she was the one who first brought it up," says Crane, who won a silver medal at the 2022 Paralympic Winter Games. "She thought it would be a good fit, so I looked into it and got matched with a great family."
For more than a century, Big Brothers Big Sisters has been championing the health and well-being of youth, ensuring children are supported by caring adults — helping them physically, mentally, socially, emotionally and academically. This year alone, the organization has impacted over 41,000 youth in over 1,100 communities across Canada.
After going through the application process, Crane was matched with a fifth-grader named Sandro, and the two became fast friends.
"He's such a funny kid," says Crane, a defenceman who began his para hockey career in 2014 with the Elmvale Bears. "Sandro is so smart, very driven, enjoys school, speaks three languages and is just a happy-go-lucky kid. He's not as much into sports, but he's into movies, Lego and things like that; he's a blast to be around."
As part of the program, Crane and Sandro get together a couple of times a month, and their interactions can be as competitive as going bowling or as simple as just grabbing a bite to eat.
“It’s nice to have Rod in my life,” says Sandro. “I look up to him, he’s a great guy. We text back and forth and go do things together. It’s pretty cool to be friends.”
Considering he went into this adventure without any prior knowledge, Crane is happy with the way the relationship has evolved.
"I didn't know what I was getting into. My only idea of Big Brothers [Big] Sisters came from an episode of The Simpsons," says Crane with a chuckle. "Not only is it nice to give back to the community, but I love watching him grow. He has really come out of his shell and become his own individual."
Three years on and despite not being much of a sports fan, Sandro and Crane have become fast friends. Sandro, who is now in Grade 8, has taken a liking to the National Para Hockey Team, following it wherever it goes, including watching the 2022 Paralympics in Beijing.
“Knowing someone on the ice is a cool feeling,” Sandro added. “I’ve gone to watch Rod live a few times and now that I know what it is, I think para hockey is super entertaining. After games, I try and text him and congratulate him, but I make sure I don’t critique him too hard.”
Although it’s just an organizational name, Crane feels the Big Brothers Big Sisters program is comparable to having your own siblings.
"[Sandro] knows I'm here to talk and for him when he needs it,” says Crane. “He's in Grade 8 and just learning how to communicate, so sometimes he takes advantage of that opportunity to open up, but other times it's as simple as just a check-in text message where he asks if I'm good and vice versa. I take a lot of pride in being there for him, and I think it gives his mom some peace of mind as a single parent that he has a strong male influence in his life."
Sandro will soon have another major tournament to keep tabs on as Crane and his Canadian teammates are preparing to host the World Para Hockey Championship beginning May 31 in Moose Jaw, Sask.
"I've made a friend for life," adds Crane. He knows I am here to support him in whatever he's doing, and I know I have a fan at home cheering for me."