May 3, 2016, started out as an ordinary morning for Tommy Sullivan (BEd’13). He had no inkling that the wildfire roaring through northern Alberta would reach Fort McMurray that day.
The teacher and hockey coach left the Fort McMurray condo he shared with his wife Anna to drive to work at his school in nearby Fort McKay – a First Nation community of about 400. By lunchtime, smoke was rolling into the schoolyard, and at three o’clock, Anna sent him a photo of the fire nearing their condo building.
In a panic, Tommy rushed back to Fort McMurray. “Luckily a great friend got Anna out,” he says, “because when I got there, they were calling for a full evacuation. Smoke was covering the city and the fire was burning on both sides of the road.” Tommy headed back to Fort McKay – where the couple had an apartment – and Anna did the same. “Because Anna was stuck near the heart of ‘The Beast,’” Tommy says, “a journey north that normally takes 45 minutes, took her four hours – the highway was jam packed with vehicles.”
The couple’s apartment quickly became a refuge. “At one point, there were about a dozen people staying there with us – friends, cousins, anyone who needed a spot. My school also became a shelter.” Tommy and Anna were among the more fortunate survivors – when they returned to the devastated city, their condo was smoke damaged but still standing. Shortly after the fire, Tommy’s teaching contract ended and he was hired as the principal of the Sunchild First Nation’s K-12 school in the Rocky Mountain Foothills.
Teaching in Alberta is just the latest adventure in Tommy’s life. He grew up on a dairy farm in Earnscliffe, Prince Edward Island, and started playing hockey at the age of four – a sport that would shape his future. While studying international business at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, he played Tier II junior hockey and became a Certified Hockey Canada Coach and International Ice Hockey Federation Coach.
After earning his Bachelor of Commerce in 2000, Tommy lived in Korea where he coached hockey at the international level and worked in the regular school system. He also helped open a private Korean kindergarten and started a soccer club that still exists today. After three years in the after school private sector, Tommy landed a teaching position at an international school in Taiwan.
Then in 2012, Tommy found himself at a crossroads. His Taiwanese school couldn’t rehire him because he didn’t have a teaching degree. Undaunted, he returned to Canada and was accepted into the one-year education program at Lakehead University’s Orillia campus. “I loved the community feeling in Orillia,” he says. It was a whirlwind year – in between studying, Tommy met and married Anna, a fitness trainer and dog groomer.
Today, Tommy and Anna are taking on new challenges. Anna works as an education assistant at Sunchild School and the couple runs a personal growth through hockey program in the summers.
“Sunchild is a really big hockey community,” Tommy says. “They’re excited because I’ve been taught by the coaches of NHL players Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, and Alexander Ovechkin.” In 2017, Tommy is embarking on the next chapter of his life – starting a master of education degree and, more importantly, he and Anna are adopting a child.