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Michael Van Ooteghem remembered with Special Olympics sponsorship

After Michael Van Ooteghem's life ended tragically last year, friends and family raised $100,000 in his memory

Michael Van Ooteghem loved hockey and the many close friendships made because of the game.

When his life ended tragically last year, friends and family came together to raise $100,000 in Van Ooteghem’s name, in hopes of sponsoring the  floor hockey competitions being held next week at the Special Olympics Canada Winter Games in Calgary.

“After many different fundraisers and promotions, Van Ooteghem's friends in Guelph and Calgary were successful in raising the funds needed to have the floor hockey event held in his name,” said Van Ooteghem’s mother, Cheryl.  

“It speaks to Michael’s friends. They have done a lot of work by hosting speaking engagements as well as putting together golf tournaments and auctions. They have done so much to make this happen.”

Growing up playing street hockey in Puslinch, Van Ooteghem became a successful player, winning numerous floor hockey tournaments with his school team, and an OMHA championship with his minor peewee AAA team.

Even after recovering from open heart surgery at age 10, he kept playing ice hockey, making it as far as the Jr. B Waterloo Siskins.

Van Ooteghem eventually relocated to Calgary to pursue his career. On March 3, 2023, on his way home after watching a Toronto Maple Leafs game with his partner Alexa and best friend Martin Kudla, he was struck and killed by a train. Van Ooteghem was 31.

Prior to his passing, Van Ooteghem had shared his hopes and dreams to one day support the floor hockey team by volunteering at the Special Olympics alongside Alexa and Martin (Marty).

“Michael’s best friend Marty has a brother with special needs and Michael always connected with him as they grew up together. And that’s Michael. He connected with people. He just had a way about him,” said Van Ooteghem’s father, Ron.

“I think that’s how the ball got rolling with the Special Olympics. It was from them wanting to do something.”

Cheryl said her son would have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support.

“Michael would have said, shine the light somewhere else. When he and his partner Alexa heard about the Special Olympics coming to Calgary, they talked about doing something. They wanted to be involved,” Cheryl said.

The 2024 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games will welcome over 4,000 visitors, including athletes, coaches and officials, along with their families and friends.

Athletes with an intellectual disability from across Canada’s 12 Provincial/Territorial Special Olympics Chapters will converge in Calgary from Feb. 27 to March 2 to compete with the goal of achieving personal bests, and for some, the opportunity to be named to Special Olympics Team Canada.

“We are heading out there and we'll be there for the week. It’s an amazing feeling for sure. It’s very heart warming and very emotional,” Ron said.

“When it came to sports, this was Michael's passion,” Ron said.

Remembered for his competitive spirit, constant smile, positive outlook and the compassion he extended to others, this commitment in Van Ooteghem's memory aims to elevate volunteerism, foster team spirit, and create long-lasting friendships among participants.

This year's Special Olympics theme is ‘together we can.'

“I’m happy that these individuals can come together at the Special Olympics and that we’ve been able to support them. They are passionate about the sports they play and they are going to have an opportunity to showcase their skills in front of a larger audience,” Cheryl said.

“Michael being part of that, it allows his love of sports to live on in others, and that is so heartwarming.”

Cheryl said that locally, Van Ooteghem’s friends will continue to hold golf tournaments and other special events with the intention of doing more charity work in her son's name.

“There is an expression that says it takes a community to raise a child. In the past year, we have witnessed how a community of friends can accomplish amazing things in memory of a friend,” Cheryl said.

“This speaks to them and the type of people that they have grown to become. And these friendships all began because of hockey.”