It’s 7:30 a.m, the Monday morning after Christmas. Most parents are taking advantage of the holiday morning to sleep in, relax, and enjoy their new gifts. But Officer Brendan Walsh helps his daughter gear up for the first game of the annual Mayor’s Cup. The game is tight, but cross-town rival Allston-Brighton pulls away in the third period. Following the disappointing defeat, however, Coach Walsh exudes not frustration, but rather, enthusiasm. Of course, the Mayor’s Cup is the pinnacle of hockey bragging rights for the youth programs in the city. But amidst the crushing loss, Walsh sees a teaching moment—a chance to show his youngsters how to handle the pain of defeat. “It’s no reason to hang your head, there will always be games in the future,” he tells his players. “But hold on to the feeling of disappointment, and let that motivate you to be a little bit better, and work a little bit harder the next time you’re on the ice.”
While the men and women who volunteer their time to coach youth sports come from all walks of life, police officers bring a particularly unique perspective to coaching young players on their path to becoming adults. For each of the law enforcement officials reached by the HPR, the most persistent theme was community. When most people join a company, their work centers around a product or service they provide. The work of a police officer, however, centers around a community. Beyond their duty to protect, police officers must also serve. This means improving the space in which they work, and the lives of whom they serve. Their product is the safety, security, and order of the city, town, or state in which they work. And that work does not end when they park the cruiser for the night and the duty-belt comes off. It is not uncommon for off-duty police officers to intervene when they happen upon a crime or dangerous situation. Likewise, community members know they can come to police officers, both on and off-duty, whenever a problem arises. True to the philosophy of community policing, many officers take a preventative, rather than reactive approach by volunteering at neighborhood organizations where they can have a positive impact in a different form of service.
“Could I just drop my kid off?”
Walsh played hockey at the professional level, and later went on to coach at the collegiate level. At 32, he retired from hockey to begin his career at the Boston Police Department, of which he is now a 10-year veteran. As his eldest daughter grew old enough to begin playing hockey, so arose the question of Walsh’s possible reunion with the game. Dropping his daughter off to her first practice, he asked himself, “Could I just drop my kid off?” Walsh stuck around to watch, but couldn’t stand to stay in the bleachers. “I realized I missed being out there, and I felt that with my experience, I did have something I could offer those kids,” Walsh recalled. His experiences with the game at the professional level, combined with his 10 years of experience policing rough Boston neighborhoods, gave him a unique perspective on the development of young hockey players, both on and off the ice. Walsh tries to mimic the unforgiving world he sees as a police officer by providing each of his players with a “bubble-wrap free” environment, where kids have the opportunity to experience the challenging adversity of sports, free from conciliation. Through all this, Walsh emphasizes what he believes to be the most valuable aspect of youth sports: the opportunity for kids to build a bond with one another that lasts a lifetime.
Walsh’s experience in BPD’s Narcotics Unit has showed him the immense importance of positive relationships in keeping a young person on the right path, especially given the opioid epidemic that has stricken Massachusetts. In Walsh’s experience, it is often the lack of positive friendships or engaging activities that leads people down the path to drug abuse.
While coaching youth hockey and battling the city’s most dangerous drug dealers may seem unrelated, the effect of each practice on the surrounding community is the same. At the end of the day, Walsh works to make people better. Whether that’s teaching an eight-year-old about “losing with grace” or giving a drug user a lifesaving wake-up call, he’s proud to help make a difference every day.
Like Walsh, fellow BPD officer Stephanie O’Sullivan has found herself working to improve the Boston community by coaching and mentoring its youth. O’Sullivan tries to instill within her players the mentality of earning, rather than expecting, success. As a member of the BPD’s Fugitive Apprehension Unit, or the “Fugitive Unit,” she tracks down some of the city’s most violent offenders. O’Sullivan knows firsthand that finding elusive lawbreakers demands relentless persistence and commitment, and she attributes her knack for the work to the lessons she learned growing up as a hockey player. “For at least one hour a week, I can give them something positive about hard work and commitment they might not otherwise get,” O’Sullivan told the HPR.
When she’s not tracking down Boston’s criminals, O’Sullivan runs O’Sullivan Hockey Academy, which she cofounded in 2014 alongside her brother Chris, a fellow officer of the BPD. During the winter season, O’Sullivan’s crew offers weekly skill-sessions throughout Boston. Her position within the program grants her greater influence than the average coach, allowing her to reach out to players of all ages across the city. “All I expect of these kids is a positive mental attitude,” O’Sullivan said. “If they can provide that then I will give them my 100 percent.”
O’Sullivan attributes her work ethic to her parents, but recognizes that not all children receive such strong parenting. Regardless of her players’ upbringing, O’Sullivan dedicates at least one hour a week to give each child an encouraging message about hard work that, as she emphasizes, “they might not otherwise get.” O’Sullivan hopes that the same tenets of hard work and perseverance that earned her success will also help her young players develop both on and off the ice.
As proud officers of the BPD, Stephanie O’Sullivan and Brendan Walsh have dedicated themselves to BPD’s mission of “working in partnership with the community to fight crime, reduce fear, and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods.” But the most critical efforts towards accomplishing that mission often occur after the uniform comes off, when officers engage with their communities beyond working hours. Coaching youth sports gives officers a direct opportunity to partake in the education and development of young people while providing an engaging opportunity for those kids. At the end of their shift, officers like Walsh and O’Sullivan choose to exchange their police badge for the coach’s whistle in the hopes that one day, our communities will be safer and stronger because of it.
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