Saint Michael's student-athletes shine spotlight on mental health, earn national recognition

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Tue, 04/18/2017 - 10:42am -- Denise Sortor

Two Saint Michael's College students have been chosen as 'college hockey's finest citizens' for their work spotlighting mental health awareness, especially among student athletes. Danny Divis and Justin McKenzie were named the recipients of the 22nd annual Hockey Humanitarian Award, presented by BNY Mellon Wealth Management, on Friday evening during a ceremony at the men's NCAA Division I Frozen Four in Chicago.

Divis and McKenzie are the first co-recipients ever of the Hockey Humanitarian Award, which recognizes college hockey's finest citizens. Only four non-Division I players had ever earned the honor. The Hockey Humanitarian Award Foundation lauds student-athletes who make significant contributions not only to their team but also to the community-at-large through leadership in volunteerism. Among other ventures, Divis and McKenzie have fulfilled that mission as founders of Hope Happens Here, which promotes mental health awareness and wellness among college students, in particular student-athletes.

"It's unbelievable to be chosen for the Hockey Humanitarian Award," said McKenzie. "It's surreal to see where Hope Happens Here has led us. I couldn't be more thankful to team up with Dan to make a difference in mental health, something we have both been affected by in one way or another. To have his support after losing a friend to suicide, and the support of the rest of our team and community as it continued to grow, has been overwhelming." Among College staff members, McKenzie said he was particularly thankful to Director of Athletics Chris Kenny '86, Head Coach Damian DiGiulian, Faculty Athletics Representative Dave Landers and Assistant Dean of Students Catherine Welch '10 for their support.

Director of Athletics Kenny '86 said, "This prestigious recognition is testament to Danny and Justin's quality of character, and a shining example of our holistic approach to education and athletics at Saint Michael's College.  We are immensely proud of them, and thrilled to have had the opportunity to support their considerable efforts in building this life-changing movement."

As juniors in 2015-16, the duo co-founded Hope Happens Here (HHH), a campus organization which they tout on their social media channels is a movement dedicated to "removing the stigma of mental health issues on college campuses."

"We didn't start this organization to win any awards or gain any recognition, and we still feel the same way, even though winning the award is obviously still an honor," said Divis. "From the start, it has been about starting an important conversation, and now we can hopefully get to see this conversation happen on a much broader scale. That's what really excites me."

Divis and McKenzie were instrumental in the Purple Knights claiming the third NE10 Championship runner-up finish of their careers this season, and have supported various community causes in the past four years, including participating in the Vermont Walk to End Alzheimer's and the Vermont Pride Festival and Parade. One of the Purple Knights' goals in participating in the Pride Parade was to continue supporting the mission of the You Can Play Project, which works to ensure the safety and inclusion of LGBTQ athletes, coaches and fans in sports.

"After hearing Justin and I won the award, the feeling was somewhat indescribable, mostly because I don't think I really processed the fact that we had actually won such a prestigious award," said Divis. "I was simply ecstatic without really understanding how many lives we could potentially impact. Since I've now been able to process it a bit, the realization that so many people will hear our story and see what HHH has grown into from humble beginnings is the best part for me."

A captain for his senior year and a SAAC member, Divis was one of the highest-scoring defensemen in NCAA Division II/III ice hockey, with four goals and 15 assists this year. Divis was named all-conference by New England Hockey Conference (NEHC) and NE10 coaches for the second straight year this winter, finishing with five all-league laurels during his career. The winner of the 2015-16 and 2016-17 NE10 Scholar-Athlete Sport Excellence Awards, Divis also earned a 2015-16 Capital One NCAA Division II Academic All-District accolade. Divis has claimed NE10 Academic All-Conference honors three times in a career that saw him land Rookie of the Year honors from two leagues as a first-year.

An unsung hero for the Purple Knights, McKenzie was third on the team in faceoff victories while contributing three goals and four points this winter. An assistant captain, he has been lauded with academic honors 10 times during his career. Also an Orientation leader at Saint Michael's, McKenzie is a member of the College's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and is a peer advocate for the campus' Student Support Network.

"Mental health is always a difficult thing to talk about, and the fact that our community has opened up to address this issue makes me so thankful to have chosen to attend Saint Michael's," said McKenzie. "I would also like to thank my family for getting behind me in something I was passionate about. My family has also unfortunately been affected by suicide, and to have their support means so much to me. I'm so excited for the direction Hope Happens Here is heading, and want to be a part of this for a long time to come."