Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Executive Director of the NHL Alumni Association, Mark Napier


A shorter version of this article appears in the June 2010 edition of Main Street; it is reprinted here with permission from the editors. Drop by www.mainstreetweeknews.com to have a look at a great community newspaper.

During his career in the World Hockey Association and National Hockey League, Mark Napier always dazzled fans with his lightning quick skating and his ability to stickhandle past defencemen with ease. He scored 375 goals and accumulated 795 points during his stellar career. Still very active in the hockey world, Napier is the Executive Director of the NHL Alumni Association and recently took the time to share some thoughts and insights with Main Street and TVOS.

While the Montreal Canadiens did not add another Stanley Cup to their trophy case this season, Napier was impressed with his former team. Despite losing in the Eastern Conference Final to the Philadelphia Flyers, the unexpected playoff run will certainly be one to remember for fans of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.

“Philly was a big, strong team and played them physical, but played smart and did not take too many penalties,” Napier said on the telephone from his Toronto office. “I’m sure it was very exciting to be in the city; I talked with a few people there and they were very excited with what was going on. The fans should be very proud of how well Montreal played.”

We often hear about players “taking it one game at a time” during long playoff runs. While some sports fans may feel it is a cliché, it is an essential tool for players competing for Lord Stanley’s Cup. Looking too far ahead or past an opponent and thinking about the next round can prove costly during the NHL’s second season.

“You never wanted to get too far ahead of yourself,” Napier said about his trips to the post season. “They always say the fourth game of the series, if you have won the first three, is the toughest to win and I believe that. Sometimes you can get way too far ahead of yourself and lose a little bit of focus. If you give the other team any kind of edge, it’s usually not a good thing.”

A two-time Stanley Cup champion during his career with Montreal (1979) and Edmonton (1985), two teams considered to be among the great dynasties in the history of the NHL, both Stanley Cup victories hold a special place in Napier’s heart, but for different reasons.

“To win the first one was pretty special; it was the Canadiens fourth in a row. Unfortunately, I was 21 years old when we won it and I really didn’t appreciate it as much as I should have,” recalled Napier. “It was fabulous, I had been dreaming about it since I was 5 years old, lifting the Stanley Cup over my head. With the Montreal Canadiens team that was in place, I was thinking we could win five or six Stanley Cups in a row. It was my first year in the league, a rookie with Montreal and we won the Stanley Cup; I thought - this could go on forever.”

“So it was pretty special to win my second one in Edmonton. That one I really appreciated a lot more and learned never to take winning the Stanley Cup for granted again,” Napier said with a laugh.

During his time in Edmonton, Napier played on the Oilers with Kevin Lowe. I share a hometown with Lowe, so I asked Mark to reminisce about his former teammate and my fellow Lachute, Quebec native.

“There are a lot of fond memories of playing with Kevin, he was an unbelievable competitor and he hated to lose. It’s all the little things he did so well; the blocked shots, that first outlet pass was always tape-to-tape. His biggest attribute was that he always led by example, he’s one of those guys that was really respected in the dressing room.”

Napier shared in another historical moment with Lowe in 2003, taking to the ice at Commonwealth Stadium in the Heritage Classic. As a Stanley Cup Champion with Montreal and Edmonton, he suited up with the Canadiens; how did he decide which team to play for in the outdoor event?

“I went for the team that asked me first,” Napier said with a hearty laugh. “It was such a special game, I was so lucky. It was such a thrill for me to play in that game and to see all the guys. It was cold out there, and it was too bad the ice was a little choppy, but all in all, it was a fabulous time. It would have been nice if the game had ended in a tie (Edmonton won 2-0)... for me that would have been perfect. I don’t even think half the people remember what the score was, they just remember how much fun it was, and a lot of money was raised for charity with that game.”

As the Executive Director of the NHL Alumni Association, Napier and the organization help recently retired players prepare for life after hockey, assist older players in financial difficulty due to health problems or life circumstances, and they raise money for many charitable organizations. Playing in the NHL is a common bond for these men and the Alumni Association considers anyone that has played even one game in the league a family member.

“I consider myself one of the luckiest guys in the world, I have a fabulous job and I love coming to work every day, which is nice to be able to say. It is really nice to be in a position where you can help the members that need help and we raise a lot of money for various charities.” Napier said proudly.

“For me, it is pretty special because these really are family members, when any of them get into any kind of problems; we are here to help them out. A lot of guys, they don't know where to turn if there is a problem, they are all pretty proud guys. We try to make it known to them that we are here if they need us.”

Regular readers will be aware of my efforts to raise awareness of the severity of concussions in sports. With more awareness among the players, the number of reported concussions has risen in the NHL; has the Alumni Association witnessed a rise in health related problems?

“We certainly do not have the problem that say, football has,” confided Napier. “We’ve actually looked at that and are working with Baycrest Hospital (in Toronto), to do some studies with our players - they have been a really good partner of ours. I really have not seen an inordinate amount of ex-players that come down with dementia or Alzheimer’s; it is certainly not anything that is so prevalent like with football.”

“I think a big difference from when I played and current players, is that hockey was very progressive in looking at concussions and weighing whether a player was fit to play. I think in hockey we were very lucky that they did notice that there was a problem and they were proactive in helping solve that problem, so that a player would not be any more injured then he already was.”

With his work as the Executive Director of the Alumni Association and the many hours he gives freely to help various charities, Mark Napier is a shining example for today’s hockey players, both on and off the ice. For this columnist, it was an absolute pleasure and an honour to share some of his time. Have a great sports day everyone.

For more information on the NHL Alumni Association, visit their site: www.nhlalumni.net

Photo is by Sgt. Roxanne Clowe and is listed on Flickr.com as IS2007-1096, uploaded by lafrancevi. In the photo, Mark Napier and a group of NHL Alumni members visit with the Canadian Troops in Kandahar in May of 2007, to play some hockey and show support their support for the troops.

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