From a young age, Michael Van Ooteghem naturally held a stick, even before a spoon. He was on skates before he was two.
Innocent games of street hockey with a few pals in Puslinch later turned into a dream come true for Michael, who grew to become a successful player in the sport he loved. Winning numerous floor hockey tournaments with his school team and an OMHA championship with his minor peewee AAA team, there was no doubt hockey was his sport.
He was relentless. Even after recovering from open heart surgery at age 10, he kept playing, making it as far as the Jr. B Waterloo Siskins.
On March 3, Michael was on his way home in Calgary after watching the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Flames along with his partner Alexa and best friend Marty when he was struck and killed by a train. Van Ooteghem was 31.
In his memory, friends, family and colleagues will host a tribute and fundraiser in Calgary on Tuesday aimed at raising $100,000 for the floor hockey event during the February 2024 Special Olympics to be held in that city.
Michael had shared his hopes and dreams to one day support the floor hockey team by volunteering at the Special Olympics along with Alexa and his best friend from Guelph, Martin Kudla, who has a brother with special needs.
“The three of them were going to volunteer for the Olympics. They wanted to get involved saying let’s volunteer and help,” said Michael’s father Ron.
“I think that’s what got the ball rolling for the Special Olympics to do this tribute to Michael. And one of his clients was really connected to the Special Olympics too. So, this just kind of started from there and is getting bigger and bigger, and now, here we are.”
Michael worked for CI Global Asset Management for seven years before taking a position with the company in Calgary, a year and a half ago.
Many co-workers are helping organize the tribute fundraiser, which will also include a live auction.
The auction will include various sports memorabilia such as four Calgary Flames tickets, a one-hour meet and greet with Lanny MacDonald and Catriona Le May Doan, a hot air balloon ride over Calgary, and autographed jerseys.
Micahel's mother Cheryl says the hope is to bring attention to and raise funds for the sport of floor hockey and the Special Olympics.
“That’s what we see this fundraiser being about. We are certainly appreciative of all of the efforts of those in Calgary and we are hopeful that they can reach their goal because it gives others so many opportunities,” Cheryl said.
“Growing up with sports and hockey, this was Michael’s life. And that’s why this really ties in with the Special Olympics. The friendships that are formed when you play sports, these people almost become your second family. When it came to sports for Michael, it was more than the game, it was about the friendships that came out of that.”
According to family, Michael's sarcastic wit, loving heart and genuine kindness impacted everyone he met. He was fiercely competitive, especially in golf against his brother Andrew.
He always had a smile on his face, remained positive even in the toughest of situations, and was always compassionate toward others.
“Mike was a genuine guy. He was a guy that cared about people and would be the guy to help you when you were down. He would always have time for you,” Cheryl said. “He was a people guy.”
As far as sports go, Ron says his son was the player on the team who would make sure the new player, or the younger player, was always looked after.
Ron and Cheryl received an e-mail after their son passed away, a tribute from someone they didn’t know, a fellow teammate who had once played hockey with Michael.
“He talked about being the youngest guy on the team. Mike had always reached out and asked 'how you were doing, how are you feeling, how are you managing it with schoolwork?' We would not have ever known Michael did this for this gentleman who decided to share his story. It meant a great deal to us,” Cheryl said.
“When you hear this and then see this tribute to Michael happening in his memory, you know in your heart that you had raised a son that you can be very proud of.”
Cheryl says she hopes the tribute to Michael will garner much support for floor hockey Special Olympians.
“This tribute is to help others come together as a team, to form friendships, to share some laughs, to have some fun, and to be competitive too, because Michael sure was. But, also it's to live life,” Cheryl said.
“For us, seeing the work that everyone is trying to do and the goals that they are trying to accomplish in Calgary, it allows Michael’s memory, his energy and his smile to live on.”
Anyone can make a donation of their choosing to Floor Hockey at 2024 Special Olympics in Calgary in memory of Michael Van Ooteghem.
Visit here to donate. When making a donation with the link above, there will be a prompt with the following question: Is your donation in affiliation with one of the following. Select 'In Memory of Michael Van Ooteghem.'
There will also be a Celebration of Life and Auction in Sponsorship of Floor Hockey at 2024 Special Olympics in Calgary, in Memory of Michael.