After 55 years with DSBN, athletic co-ordinator puts down his playbook

For nearly 20 years, Deb McLean helped bring Christmas to more than 100 families through the District School Board of Niagara.

By her side was a partner – a silent Santa, as she called him – who shared a passion for helping children and parents during the holiday season.

John Haeni loaded his sleigh (truck) with gifts and food and drove to each family home.

There was a softer side to the retiring DSBN sporting coordinator that people didn’t always see.

“He always seemed like a grumpy father or grandfather as he got older, but[students]knew deep down that he would give anything he had for them.”

For Haeni, it was these very connections that kept him coming back to the gym and will remain when he says goodbye.

“The kids I had loved going to the gym and being with them,” said Haeni, 76. “You’re happy to win this tournament or that, but I (am) just happy about relationships , which are still ongoing.”

After 55 years at DSBN, Haeni officially quits and puts away his playbook. After years of support from his wife, he decided it would be his turn as soon as she retired — as she did in May from Niagara Health, where she was an administrator for 47 years.

It was a successful and long way. Haeni began as a physical education teacher with the St. Catharines Board of Education, which later became the Lincoln County Board of Education and then the DSBN, in 1967 and was appointed elementary physical education coordinator in 2001, responsible for all sports between schools.

The Fonthill resident taught physical education at Briardale Public School from Kindergarten through 8th grade and moved on to St. Catharines before ending his teaching career at Victoria Public School in Niagara Falls.

His goal was to make physical education classes open and welcoming and never make students feel like they have to be great to participate. It should be fun.

But as a coach it was more than that.

“Every kid who played for me and every coach who played against me knew I played to win. I admit that very well. Not at any price, but we were looking for the win,” he said.

Parents called him “old school” – whether because players were expected to train five days a week or early in the morning – but the tough coaching was about making sure the students were doing their best at all times. Though he said he’s softened over the years, his competitive spirit never waned. If players were late for practice, “they might not be playing very much,” he said.

Haeni grew up in Arnprior, a small town north of Ottawa, but following his father’s advice to “get out of town for a while,” arrived in Niagara and never returned.

He earned his honors and masters degrees from Brock University and took classes in Hamilton over the summer because Brock didn’t have programming — “They didn’t even have a gym when I was there,” Haeni said. He taught and coached football, cross-country skiing, badminton, gymnastics.

He celebrated his greatest successes in volleyball, which he continued to train until his retirement in secondary school. He has a high school named after him, as well as two local tournaments – the John Haeni Classic for girls and the John Haeni Niagara Cup for boys.

McLean said he was the face of DSBN athletics.

In her freshman year as a teacher, McLean said Haeni showed her the basics, stood behind her, and formed a friendship that lasted more than 35 years. She doesn’t know what she would have done without him and isn’t sure what DSBN will do now.

“I know there’s going to be a huge hole because there’s not a single person in DSBN right now who can fill that,” she said. “He knew every rule for every game, for every sport like the back of his hand.”

Haeni “lived and breathed DSBN sport”, including organizing athletics meetings and football tournaments.

“He didn’t do it out of gratitude,” McLean said. “He pushed (students) hard and he expected great things from them and he got great things out of them. The kids will miss his support and love knowing he was there for them.”

At 55, Haeni has seen students play varsity sports, take jobs in the community and bring their own children to practice. Others became teachers, principals, heads of sports departments. Some even retired before him.

And now that it’s his turn, Haeni is proud of a long list of board achievements, including expanding sports and activities and creating a competitive balance between schools. He is proud that DSBN athletics rivals any other school board in Ontario.

It has always been about giving all students a chance to play, grow and succeed.

“I had some very good athletes who just wanted to play for fun,” he said. “I’ve had some good mid-level athletes who just always did their best. I’ve always admired that they were 100 percent there. I think I did too. When I was training it was 100 per cent and when the game was over we shook hands and continued down the track.”

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