By Lukas Weese
It's Saturday night in Owen Sound, and if you're a hockey fan, there's only one place to be.
The Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre, known simply as the 'Bayshore' to locals, provides an escape and entertainment away from the bitterly cold winters on any night. But this wasn’t an ordinary Saturday.
Before the Owen Sound Attack faced the Erie Otters in an OHL game Feb. 22, defenseman Mark Woolley presented a $35,000 cheque to representatives from Diabetes Canada. His charity, Woolley’s Warriors, raised the money through six months of fundraising events, the proceeds going towards “D-Camps” for children with diabetes.
For many in attendance, it didn’t matter the Attack lost 7-4 to the Otters. Woolley’s efforts on and off the ice serve as an inspiration to those suffering from Type I diabetes. “For me, moving away from home at 15 with diabetes, it forced me to grow up a lot faster than other kids my age,” Woolley said recently. “It’s certainly helped with the leadership aspect, not just in the locker room but my own maturity as well.”
At age 12, Woolley became a diabetic, joining his brother, Matt, who was born with the disease. Living with diabetes presents its challenges. Monitoring the body’s insulin levels becomes an intrinsic daily routine to a diabetic’s life, and, according to a report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, men with Type I diabetes lose 11 years off of their life expectancy compared to those who don’t have the disease.
Woolley did not want the disease to define him as an athlete. Growing up in St. Thomas, Ont., he wanted to play competitive hockey like many kids his age. Woolley's natural size made him a key defenseman with the AAA Elgin Middlesex Chiefs and the 54th overall pick in the OHL draft in 2017 by Guelph. “As long as you manage your health properly and take care of it accordingly, (diabetes) is not going to get in the way,” Woolley said.
While playing for the Storm, Woolley was inspired by teammate Garrett McFadden, whose charity, McFadden’s Movement, supports mental health among athletes. Woolley also witnessed the impact of Montreal Canadiens center Max Domi’s work with diabetic athletes, given his personal experience with the disease.
In the summer of 2019, following Woolley’s trade from Guelph to Owen Sound, he created Woolley’s Warriors. “Knowing Mark this year, you can tell how much he’s worked towards “Woolley’s Warriors,” on top of being in the OHL, which is hard,” said Attack teammate Carter Robertson.
Added Aidan Dudas, the Los Angeles Kings prospect who helped Team Canada win the gold medal at the 2019 World Junior Championship: “I think Mark’s goal was to reach $2,000 by the end of the season, and halfway through, he got to $20,000. He’s done a great job growing his brand and leaving a legacy behind in Owen Sound.”
Through his organization, Woolley shares his story and experiences with other kids living with the disease. But he is always willing to listen and learn from them. Last season, Woolley spoke with up to a dozen kids and their families after each Attack game. Given the tight-knit nature of Owen Sound, it allows for hockey players like Woolley to build unbreakable bonds with members of the community. And the post-game talks serve as a two-way street. “One 10-year-old boy had a service dog to help with his diabetes,” said Woolley. “When I saw that, I had tons of questions about it because that’s something I’d be interested in.”
Woolley, who in addition to his charity work also volunteers at the Owen Sound Fire Hall, is also a willing helper at the rink, serving as a role model for younger players on the team. “We had a couple of situations where young guys aren’t playing as much as they want,” Attack coach Alan Letang said. “Mark took them aside and told them about his experiences being a 16-year-old in Guelph. It’s nice when you can have someone like Mark who can relate to different guys in the room.”
But there's work to do if Woolley hopes to take his game to the next level. Playing on an Attack team that was in a playoff position before the OHL shut down due to the pandemic, Woolley provided physicality and size (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) on the blueline, but it wasn't enough to earn him a place on Central Scouting's list of 217 North American skaters, and it's unlikely he'll be drafted this summer. According to Letang, Woolley needs to work on his footwork and skating, particularly in his own zone against agile, speedier players.
Whatever the future holds, Woolley’s legacy in Owen Sound and beyond will be long-lasting. “So many young kids with Type I diabetes look up to Mark,” Robertson said, “which is awesome to see.”