By Mike Zigomanis, former NHL player
When I was 16 years old I chose to leave home. This decision was years in the making and had the full support of my mom and dad along with my two older sisters who had all sacrificed a lot to get me to this point.
The journey from Markham to Kingston was a major step in my pursuit of what some describe as the "Canadian Dream" — the chance to play in the NHL.
It is hard for me to contrast my circumstances with kids — sometimes younger than I was — having to flee their homes out of despair and fear.
I was leaving a loving home totally committed to seeing how far my hockey talent would take me and there are young people today, through no fault of their own, who are having to live on the streets and doing what ever they can to survive.
Some organizations are there to help but demand usually outstrips supply and kids are at risk of another round of disappointment.
As these young people leave their teen years there is a perception that as young adults they should be better equipped to fend for themselves. As a result, many necessary services may not be so easily available to them.
Contrast that with my situation as a 20-year-old winning a bronze medal at the World Junior Championships in Russia and getting ready to play in the NHL. The cruelty of fate has never been starker. Speak to any kid that is homeless and you hear the same message, "I wish my life had been better."
Almost all of these kids just want some love and an opportunity. Sadly, at this point there are few who still hold onto their dreams. They are just trying to get through each day. As the experts will tell you, there is a high risk that the people who have the most influence at this stage are likely to be steering them in the wrong direction.
It is hard to believe that Canada has such a large homeless problem. It is possible you pass them on the streets, shop in the same stores, they may even be in the same schools as people you know but at the end of each day they do not go home.
Throughout my Major Junior and professional hockey career I had structure, I had family support and I had friendships. It is extremely difficult to understand the loneliness these kids must feel every day and their lack of hope.
The predicament they are in did not happen through choices they made but is due to happenstance. Given they did nothing wrong, surely we owe them the opportunity to something better?
It was hockey that raised my awareness about youth homelessness. After I retired, I was invited to take part in a pro-am charity event called Hockey Helps the Homeless. That led to a tour of the Hub at 360ºkids and I saw for myself what is on offer.
It was also a point of realization about how large the problem is, and without more action from all of us, this issue will never go away.
When I was playing in Kingston, money was tight and I had to rely on financial support from my parents. But, I also knew my circumstances were temporary and if for some reason my career did not lead me to the NHL, I could go back home, and after a period of reflection, seek another opportunity.
It is hard for me to understand how young people can keep going without any hope.
Fate can offer you tremendous highs and it can also deliver some setbacks. Injuries shortened my career but at least I got the chance to fulfill my dream.
I was also able to play in some great cities with some fantastic players. I have my name etched on the Stanley Cup and as a Markham kid I was able to pull-on a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey. None of these things would have been possible without my family — it may sound like a cliché but it is true. Without their love and support, none of this would have been possible.
There are no guarantees in life, but all of us can make a difference. When a kid leaves home it should be to pursue a dream, not leave a nightmare. For those in such dreadful circumstances there needs to be somewhere they can turn to, so they don't feel alone, vulnerable and without a dream.
Mike Zigomanis is a former NHL player who is taking part in the 360ºExperience, a fundraising event for 360ºkids.