The Mighty Ducks of Australia: Alternative Pathways for Re-engagement in Education
By Lakeisha Watkins
Ice hockey. For many scenes of the movie The Mighty Ducks flash in their minds. A group of teens teaming together to make it big in the rough and tumble ice sport. Not many have seen a real-life game in the flesh, nor have they played the sport.
Yet, in Adelaide a program has brought the movie to life, with the aim of giving teens a chance to re-engage with the education system. The Ice Factor program has spent the past 16 years being a beacon of light to disengaged youths, helping them to overcome adversity. It assists high schools in keeping students at risk of not completing their education in school, using ice hockey as the ultimate driver of motivation.
Research by academic Dr Kirsten Hutchinson has shown that adolescent disengagement has been a serious challenge for schools in Australia. Early school leaving, unemployment and disengagement from society have been prevalent. These have detrimental effects on individuals, as those who don’t complete their high school education can also face issues with substance abuse and mental illness.
Ice Factor's efforts have seen massive success, with participants being able to complete high school, gain employment, go on to higher education, or even strike success in sport—including the AFL.
The program currently accepts 17 public high schools, with students coming from all walks of life. These include victims of bullying, those suffering from mental health issues, refugees, and many more. It all takes place in a local ice rink, the air cold, but the player's spirits high.
The program was created by Marie Shaw, who is highly regarded in South Australia’s courts for her work as a Queen's Counsel. She first began Ice Factor after realising the positive impact ice hockey had on her youngest daughter Justine.
Justine had been disengaged with school, which Marie cites due to a lack of social skills. After watching the movie, The Mighty Ducks, Justine wanted to be a hockey player. Marie says her daughter was a natural at it, going on to make a state team at just twelve years old. The sport gave her much needed self-esteem and helped her to form friendships within her hockey team.
Justine's own journey inspired Marie to start a program for others, with the hope that it could help other young people to better themselves. She started an eight-week program, enlisting the help of a youth worker, an educator, a curriculum writer and an ice hockey coach.
The first participants were a group of disengaged high school students, who called their team the Reapers. The pilot program combined life skills and ice hockey to capture the players motivation to encourage their engagement with school.
Within those eight weeks, students showed a great deal of personal development. Marie saw the opportunities the program offered for the young teens and decided to expand. Ice Factor now runs throughout the school year, helping students to become confident ice hockey players, whilst motivating them to stay in school.
The program believes that ice hockey offers a unique benefit to students in the way that they all start in the same place. Majority of participants have never played the sport before. For many new players, they have never been ice skating. Many tumble over on their first days. But with hard work, they become powerful players, able to tear up the ice with minimal effort.
Marie says that players lack of previous experience proves beneficial to the sport. New players don't have to fear "looking silly" as everyone has been in the same boat at some point in their journey with the program. This unites all of the members in a team, helping them to strengthen bonds with each other and improve sportsmanship skills.
The program runs weekly throughout the school term. Each team trains once a week and participates in a tournament at the end of each term. The training sessions teach students the skills needed to play ice hockey—skating, puck handling and shooting. Yet the program also runs theory classes. This is where the coaches get to interact with the students and get to know them better. Smiles fill the room and conversations float around.
The program is an unorthodox approach to re-engaging students with school. The training sessions are conducted during school hours, meaning students miss classes. They must keep up their school attendance in order to continue in the program. This method has seen the improvement of school attendance rates for many students, for whom Ice Factor proves too important to miss out on.
Past player Max Black has experienced this himself. He joined the program when he was in year nine. Now out of school and busy working three jobs, he recalls his time in the program with great fondness.
Though a friendly and highly motivated twenty-year-old, Max wasn't always engaged with what he did as a teen. He'd often favour the comfort of his own home than his school classes. Yet stepping onto the ice rink and playing the sport changed all of this.
Max has been highly important to the program as both a leader and a goalie. Being a goaltender is gruelling work in ice hockey—not many players take on the position. Yet Max did, and he loves it. When competitions are held, you can expect to see him playing games back to back with a great deal of enthusiasm. It's tiring work, but he does it with a smile on his face, never saying no to a team that's in need.
For Max, community involvement is another aspect that makes the program so effective. Seeing members of the community so eager to assist students is an eye-opening experience. It helps participants to realise their own value.
The program is sponsored by a range of organisations, including menswear brand Peter Shearer. In 2018, Ice Factor held its biennial Ice Factor Spectacular. This event gives students the opportunity to thank those who sponsor the program. It's a night of glitz and glamour. Students get to dress up and model, helping to give them a boost of confidence. Proceeds from the event go to purchasing students their own pair of ice skates. This is a big step for many, finally being able to ditch the plastic rental skates loaned by the IceArena.
Peter Shearer loaned suits to students on the night, helping them to dress the part. They continued this generosity the following year, giving year twelve students suits to wear to their school formals. These acts help show students that people care about them.
For other community members, they can relate to the program. At the 2018 Spectacular, Olympic swimmer Daniel Smith attended, telling of his battle in overcoming addiction to compete in the Rio Olympics. When people like Daniel share their stories, players learn that change can happen. Most importantly, they realise that they are the ones with the power to make that change.
Participants can use Ice Factor to earn much needed points towards their SACE, the South Australian Certificate of Education. This is needed to complete high school. Players can earn 10 SACE points through Stage 1 Intergrated Learning.
Students complete reflective journals, detailing their experiences and personal development within the program. They set goals, helping them learn the value of accountability. The points earned from Ice Factor help take pressure off students, allowing them to get a head-start for years 11 and 12.
Ice Factor has also given teachers the ability to engage with their students in new ways. Brenton Kovaleff and Julie Keast have overseen their team, the Findon Falcons, since 2019. They sit in the noisy foyer of the IceArena as they speak of the impact Ice Factor has had on them and their players.
For all involved, Ice Factor is more than a sports program—it’s a second chance at life. It gives once defeated students a shot at redemption. The program allows students to find the drive they need to continue with their schooling and develop crucial life skills.
Once labelled disruptive and at risk, students hold their heads up high and push through, their feet firm on the ground as they face each hurdle in their life with determination and hope. It matters not how many times they fall over, but how many times they get knocked down and keep pushing forward.