Tuesday, December 20, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview with Jason York

The last thing that you want to hear from your coach when you are a professional hockey player is that you will be a healthy scratch. Since his retirement from the NHL though, NHL Alumni member Jason York can embrace that phrase with pride. Along with his co-host Steve Lloyd, Jason helps to keep hockey fans in the nation’s capital up to date on the Ottawa Senators, as well as all the news from around the NHL as part of The Healthy Scratches on Ottawa’s Team 1200 radio station. .

With 757 games played as a defenseman in the league, York is very knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the game and the media world has taken notice. Along with his radio work, he writes a weekly column every Sunday in the Ottawa Sun and appears on Rogers Sportsnet as an analyst and commentator.

An Ottawa native, Jason explained that the transition from professional hockey player to radio host and media member is an ongoing process. While still a member of the Boston Bruins, he began working at the Team 1200 on a part time basis during the Ottawa Senators playoff run in 2007. The opportunity opened the door to the radio world and once he retired, York became a respected member of the Ottawa media on a full time basis. Knowing the importance of teamwork and team chemistry, Jason and fellow ‘Healthy Scratch’ Steve Lloyd, entertain and inform their audience every weekday afternoon from 3 to 6pm.

“I think Steve and I have a pretty good thing going; he’s very knowledgeable and he does his homework,” Jason said. “For a guy that didn’t play professionally, he knows a lot about the game and I think that’s something I really like about working with him. We can have a conversation and we think along the same lines and have a lot of the same views about the game - what we like and what we don’t like. Which is bad sometimes, I find we agree too much on things. To make radio interesting you have to have some disagreements, so sometimes we’ll just make some up!”

I asked Jason if being part of the media, covering the Senators locally and the NHL as a whole on Sportsnet, allows him to feel that he is still part of the hockey world. His answer surprised me in a way, but it highlights how difficult it is to make that transition to ‘Life after Hockey’.

“A lot of people say that to me, but to be honest, that’s really not important to me,” he confided. “My honest opinion is that once you are done playing, you’re really not part of the hockey world any more. When you are a player and you are in the dressing room you are part of the hockey world. Once you are done playing, you’re an outsider.”

“That’s the thing I think a lot of guys have a hard time with - you lose that team atmosphere, you lose going to the rink. I talk to a lot of guys and ask them what they miss most and they all say being around the guys. I don’t remember a lot of the specific plays I made when I played, but I remember a lot of the good times and the funny things we did off the ice. It’s that team camaraderie and being part of a group that when you’re done, it’s over. That’s why guys love the Alumni events so much.”

Growing up in Ottawa, Jason’s favourite player was a fellow Ottawa native, Doug Wilson. While most kids in the area were fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens, he liked the look of the Chicago Blackhawks uniform and being a defenseman himself, he cheered on Wilson because of his hard slapshot and his style of play. Being a fan of Wilson though did not influence his own style on the ice.

“When I played, I kind of just played the game,” he reminisced. “I didn’t play for any other reason except that it was fun. I played a lot of outdoor hockey - that was probably my biggest passion as a kid. I would go out and play a lot on the outdoor rinks and that was how I spent most of my time.”

Selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the seventh round (129th overall) in the 1990 entry draft, it was difficult to break into the NHL in an organization with a strong veteran presence throughout their lineup. The AHL is a quality league though and some of his teammates on the Adirondack Red Wings included future NHLers - Keith Primeau, Mike Sillinger, Kris Draper and Aaron Ward. I asked Jason about the value of spending time in the AHL, perfecting his skills before entering the NHL as a regular - did it help his game?

“Well, yes, but nobody wants to be in the AHL, they want to be in the NHL,” he said with a laugh. “I was a seventh round draft pick, so I had to leapfrog a lot of guys in Detroit’s organization. Not just the guys in Detroit, but the guys in the minors as well that were first, second and third round draft picks. It’s pretty competitive - you are on a team, but at the same time, you are trying to beat these guys out. They are trying to get to Detroit before you do. You’re in a team environment, but there is a lot of pressure. You can let it get to you or you can rise above it.”

“There’s some luck involved for a lot of guys too; the right place at the right time, winning, losing. If you look at what is going on in Ottawa this year, there are a lot of guys on the Senators now from Binghamton because those guys won a Calder Cup in Binghamton. Part of the reason that I was able to make the jump to Detroit, was because I won a Calder Cup in Adirondack. That can really make your stock as a player rise if you win in the minors.”

“It’s funny,” he continued. “When you look back at your career, one of the things I remember from the minors was being coached by Barry Melrose. He used to say, ‘All you guys are complaining about being in the minors and how much you hate it, but when your careers are done and you’re playing in the NHL, you are going to look back and say this was some of the most fun you ever had as a player’. He was right - when you get to the NHL, it’s such a business and there is a lot more at stake.”

After playing in only 19 games with Detroit during his four seasons with the organization, Jason and teammate Mike Sillinger were traded to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. It was with the Ducks that he was given the opportunity to become an NHL regular, playing in 79 games during his first full season on the West Coast (1995-96). Shortly before the start of the 1996-97 season, he was traded once again, but this time it was to his hometown Ottawa Senators. It was an interesting time to play in Ottawa; after years of being at or near the bottom of the league standings, the franchise was starting to turn a corner and becoming a playoff calibre team.

“It was a little bit nerve-wracking at the beginning, after I was traded from Anaheim. I was happy there, young and playing in Southern California. It was a pretty cool franchise and who wouldn’t want to play in Southern California? The year before I came to Ottawa, there was a Sports Illustrated article on the worst franchise in all of pro sports and it was about the Ottawa Senators. So when you come to a team like that and if it doesn’t win, then usually they just keep making changes until the changes are done. So, as a player you never really get established.”

“It was good though,” he recalled. “I came to Ottawa and there were a lot of young guys that were looking to make a name for themselves. We had a lot of young players coming in at that time - Daniel Alfredsson and Wade Redden were coming into their own, Yashin was getting pretty good and Shawn McEachern was an experienced veteran, so we had a lot of good guys - we had a good group! I ended up staying in Ottawa for five years and we kind of established an identity for the team with five playoff appearances in a row. We played some pretty good hockey and for me, I kind of got established as an NHL player while I was there.”

With a solid reputation as an NHL defenseman, Jason returned to Anaheim as a free agent for the 2001-02 season. After playing in 74 games with the Ducks that year, he was traded for the third time in his career and was off to Nashville to join the Predators. After playing in Ottawa, I wondered what it was like to play in a city that many call a ‘non-traditional’ hockey market. Jason was quick to point out that he really enjoyed playing there and that the fans in Nashville are all good people and very supportive of their team.

“That was probably the most fun I had in my career,” he said. “There are some good, good people in Nashville and Barry Trotz was one of the best coaches I ever had. I’m not talking technically, but he just knows how to treat players right in order to get the most out of them. That was a great experience and the General Manager, David Poile, created a real family atmosphere on that team. The kids would always be around during the games - they had a big room for the wives to have the kids there during the games and the kids were always welcome in the dressing room. I can remember my boys coming in and sitting in my stall with me and we’d have family skates with the team too.”

“Nashville kind of gets a bad rap for being a non-traditional hockey market, but I think it’s a really good place to play. The people are not as knowledgeable as Ottawa hockey fans, but they have a good loyal fan base there. The guys that play in Nashville, everybody will tell you the same thing, they love playing there!”

On his Twitter page (@jasonyork33), he has a picture of himself from his time as a Mighty Duck and his bio states that he is ‘
one of the lucky few to don the worst 3rd jersey in NHL history!’

“Oh yeah, it’s the Anaheim ‘Wild Wing’,” Jason said with a laugh. “I also wore the mustard uniform in Nashville too - we took a lot of heat for that one!”

After the NHL lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, Jason found himself on his way to Lugano to start the 2005-06 season in the Swiss Elite League. While in Switzerland, he took part in the Spengler Cup, representing Canada in the annual tournament hosted by HC Davos during the Christmas holidays. By the end of the hockey season, Jason and his teammates were lifting the championship trophy in the Swiss league and much like winning the Calder Cup in the AHL, he said that it was a very special moment in his hockey career. The season ended on a high note, but it did not start of that way.

“When I first went over, I wanted to be in the NHL and I wasn’t happy, so I kind of went over there a little disgruntled,” Jason Acknowledged. “As I spent more time there, I started to really appreciate it and really enjoying the grassroots part of the game.”

“I remember we went over and practiced up in the Alps in Switzerland. The coach brought us up to this rural Swiss village. We were playing in the top level of the Swiss Elite League and I think this was one of the Swiss B League places, where they would practice. It was an outdoor facility - just an outdoor rink with a little restaurant and bar overlooking the ice. And this rink, it was like it was cut right out of the mountains. The sun was shining down on the ice, I remember coming out of the dressing room, and it was just awesome! Our goaltenders actually had sunglasses on during the practice because the sun was so hot on the ice and kind of blinding them. Just to be up there for a couple of days, skating up in the mountains; it was so much fun to be practicing outside.”

“Looking back,” he continued. “I kind of wish I had stayed. It was awesome to come back to Boston the next year and play for an Original 6 team, which I thought was wonderful, but I’ll tell you, when you are in Switzerland, the quality of life for an older guy and playing less games is great. It’s good for your family over there too with great schools and great fans. Looking back on my career, that was arguably the most fun I had - winning that championship in Switzerland.”

“Going to the games in Switzerland, I remember being so much more relaxed. Being able to just go out and play the games. There is not as much pressure there as when you are in the NHL, but you find yourself missing that pressure too at the same time. I always like to compete against the best and play against the best - you can’t replace that and it’s something everybody strives to do. But, it was nice to play for that year in Switzerland.”

Returning to the NHL for one more season as a member of the Bruins after his year in Switzerland, York was bothered by persistent knee injuries. Speaking with a surgeon at the end of the 2006-07 season, he was told that he would not be able to work out in the gym as he had throughout his career. He would not be able to train properly, using the exercises needed to be prepared for the physical toll associated with being a defenseman in the NHL. As Jason explained in our interview, his body just wouldn’t cooperate with him any more.

“My last year in Boston, I kind of new it was the end. To be able to play every day, I had to take anti-inflammatory medication and I was thinking ‘this can’t be good for me’. That next summer, getting into the weight room, I just felt that the wear and tear on my body wasn’t going to allow me to play. I was going to go over to Europe because it is a little easier to play over there but with my kids involved with minor hockey, something inside of me just didn’t want to move the whole family again and I decided to stay in Ottawa.”

“I kind of struggled with the decision all that year and then the next year. I still had a ton of offers to play over in Europe and I struggled with it some more, whether to try playing. I was skating to stay in shape, but I was thinking it would be tough to play in the NHL and I knew in the back of my mind that my body wouldn’t be able to do it. I always said I wanted to be able to throw a ball with my kids and skate on the rink with my kids and do things like that.”

Now that his playing career is over and he has settled in to his life after hockey in radio, print and television, Jason has become a proud member of the Ottawa Senators Alumni. As the Senators organization celebrates its 20th anniversary, he is part of a new generation of players helping many charitable causes in the Ottawa community.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of the younger guys that played for the Senators becoming involved now. When they first started the Alumni, the Senators were a pretty young franchise and they didn’t have a lot guys that actually played for Ottawa. Now you are starting to see guys like Todd White, Shaun Van Allen and Patrick Lalime coming back to Ottawa. There are a lot of guys now that played for the team, so I think that moving forward, for events and stuff, there will be players that the people can identify with and I think that will be good for the Alumni and the charities.”

Life in the NHL is physically demanding and Jason's
comment that he wanted to be able to skate on the rink with his kids says it all - there is a life after hockey to consider. He has embraced the new opportunities that have come his way, and with his family and friends by his side, new adventures are right around the corner for the Team 1200’s Healthy Scratch.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ask the Alumni with Kevin Lowe

Sharing a hometown with Kevin Lowe, I have always kept a close eye on the Edmonton Oilers. While Lachute, Quebec is in the heart of Montreal Canadiens territory, it was very easy to cheer for the Campbell Conference team in Edmonton during the 80’s because of their exciting end-to-end style of play. With teammates named Kurri, Coffey, Anderson, Messier, Fuhr and Moog - and until the summer of 1988, a young man named Gretzky, our hometown hockey hero skated onto the world stage after honing his skills in our small town.

I have had the opportunity to interview Kevin many times since I began my writing career, reminiscing about his days in Lachute, discussing his work with the Oilers, as well as being part of Hockey Canada’s management team. Each conversation has been insightful and educational, providing an interesting view into the hockey world. Although he has an extremely busy schedule as the President of Hockey Operations for the Oilers, he set aside some time to answer questions from hockey fans in this instalment of Ask the Alumni.

Read the full interview with Kevin Lowe at the NHL Alumni Association's website

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

TVOS and Fan-tastic Sports - Can Team Chemistry Make A Difference?

Peter Ing
(Photo - NHL Alumni Association)
Every Wednesday, I share my thoughts from inside the NHL Alumni Association and from around today's NHL at Peter Ing's XHockey blog. This week, I take a look at team chemistry - is it real or just a sports cliche?

Can Team Chemistry Make A Difference?

As a sports columnist, my family, friends and readers often ask me for my pre-season predictions. Who will win the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl and ‘how will my team do this year’ are questions that I hear on a regular basis. While I used to work diligently trying to see into the future, predicting a league champion is not an easy task. There are too many factors involved and the biggest of course is managing to stay healthy – injuries can derail a good team in a hurry! If you are wondering how your team will do in any given season, I’ll pass along something I have learnt from my interviews and you may find your answer. How well do the guys on your favourite team get along with each other?

Read the rest of the article at the Fan-tastic Sports XHockey blog

Saturday, December 10, 2011

"Business Garfoose" Does Some Baking For The Holidays!

While I usually take a serious look at the sports world here at The Voice of Sport, every now and then, things can get a little silly! You have to take a moment and have a little fun once in a while to recharge your batteries. So, having said that, what kind of fun do I like to have here at TVOS? Well, I try my best to entertain pitcher, best selling author and Garfoose creator Dirk Hayhurst - and make him laugh while I am doing it!

The Garfoose is a half-moose / half-giraffe, fire breathing, wi-fi enabled, magical, mystical creature. If you have followed Dirk on Twitter or visited his website, you'll know all about the Garfoose. If you are hearing about this wonderful creature for the first time, I suggest you read all about the Garfoose at Dirk's site. While you're at Dirk's website, I highly recommend that you also pre-order his new book Out of My League - trust me, you will love it!

Perhaps it is because I have interviewed Dirk a few times, but I have been very fortunate to have a Garfoose visit me from time to time. He is a Garfoose that strayed from the magical baseball groves years ago, becoming a multi-billionaire as a corporate raider in Toronto and throughout the business world. It is always a treat when he drops by for a visit! "Business Garfoose" has gone shopping in Toronto, he has travelled to Parliament Hill in Ottawa and visited Ottawa's Museum of Nature too. It's funny, considering he is a multi-billionaire, you'd think he'd have more than one suit and a better pair of shoes, but hey, he didn't get rich spending money.

We never know when "Business Garfoose" will appear and this evening he dropped by to do some holiday baking. Luckily, my wife was home and documented yet another "Business Garfoose" adventure.

"Business Garfoose" Does Some Baking For The Holidays!

"It's mixing time!"

Tom Petty said it best - "The waiting is the hardest part!"


"One of these cookies is not like the others."

"Wow!! It's a Garfookie!!"
"Remember kids, always clean up
 after you bake cookies."

Well folks, there you have it - the latest "Business Garfoose" adventure...

Where will he turn up next?

Are you laughing yet Dirk?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Voice of Sport Teams Up With Fan-tastic Sports

NHL Alumni member Peter Ing helps a young friend
at the Canadian Tire NHL Junior Skills in
Ottawa on November 25th
(Photo TVOS)
I am pleased to announce that The Voice of Sport has teamed up with Fan-tastic Sports!

Former Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Peter Ing and his business partner, Bryce Salvador of the New Jersey Devils, operate Fan-tastic Sports - a company that manufactures and distributes innovative hockey training equipment for hockey schools and individual players. When Peter arrived in Ottawa for the Canadian Tire NHL Junior Skills competition, he mentioned that they have created a blog at their XHockey website and offered me the opportunity to write an article each week.

Every Wednesday, I will be sharing a few thoughts from inside the NHL Alumni Association and news from today's NHL.

The first article has been posted - please drop by and take a look!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview with Peter Ing - The Canadian Tire NHL Junior Skills

Andrew and Peter Ing at the 2011 NHL Alumni Gala
(Photo: TVOS)
In the midst of a cross Canada tour, NHL Alumni member Peter Ing and the Canadian Tire NHL Junior Skills Competition arrived in Ottawa on November 25th at the Nepean Sportsplex. The Canadian Tire NHL Junior Skills events are open to children from the ages of 7 to 12 and provide the opportunity for the participants to test their skills in four events - shooting accuracy, passing accuracy, timed skating and puck control.

Using the innovative XHockeyProducts from Peter’s company, Fan-tastic Sports, (www.fan-tasticsports.com) the young hockey players are able to track their scores online and see how they compare with other young Canadian hockey players. Those with the best scores in the qualifying events from each city will be invited to Ottawa during the NHLs All-Star weekend to compete in the grand finale. With stops in 15 Canadian cities, the events will have brought Peter from Vancouver (on October 7th) all the way to St. Johns, Newfoundland (on December 16th) and everywhere in between.

“I havent travelled like this since I played hockey, Peter said in the dressing room before taking to the ice with another group of children. Things have been fantastic so far! There has been a great response from the kids and the parents. I think it is really exciting to see them out there having a good time. There are lots of smiles, lots of interaction and to have a chance to maybe go to the All-Star game - that is a nice carrot on top of everything.

“I have really enjoyed being in that hockey environment again, seeing hockey across Canada. It was awesome to see the different rinks across the country. Places like Edmonton, where they have four rinks, rock climbing walls and pools inside. In Regina, they had indoor soccer fields with huge ceilings, along with six ice rinks. I have seen some phenomenal facilities built for hockey and sports in general.

At each tour stop, a number of local NHL Alumni members have joined Peter on the ice, interacting with the kids, guiding them through the various challenges and offering encouragement to all. When I stopped by the rink to catch up with Peter in Ottawa, it was interesting to see that the smiles were not only on the faces of the youngsters participating, the Alumni members were having a great time too. Joining Peter at this stop on the tour were fellow NHL Alumni members Laurie Boschman, Shaun Van Allen, Tom Fergus and Patrick Lalime.

“Its great to see where guys have made their homes and finding out what they are doing now in their lives, he said of meeting up with old friends and former teammates in each city. With fifteen events and at least four alumni members at each event, you get a pretty good cross section of players. Seeing Shaun Van Allen today for example - we havent seen each other since we were teammates back in Edmonton. That was in the early 90s. Things have changed a lot since then! You get to catch up on news about their families, so its great to see so many guys. Not only the ones you played against, but the ones you played with too.

An event like the Canadian Tire NHL Junior Skills Competition ties right in with the NHL Alumni Association’s mission of growing the game of hockey at all levels. For the former NHL players involved with the Alumni Association, there is nothing better than working with young hockey players and helping to build memories that will last a lifetime.

“Thats what I love about this tour, it is really at the grassroots level. We have it segmented from 7 to 12-year olds, but anyone between those ages, boy or girl, can participate. You are really competing against yourself, so it is a feel-good event no matter who you are or what your background in hockey is. We have had entry-level House League kids come out with a smile and weve had Triple A hockey players that really take it seriously and want to have the best score in the country.

After crossing the country, the tour will return to Ottawa for the grand finale, which will take place on the ice of the world-famous Rideau Canal during the NHL All-Star festivities at the end of January. Along with wrapping up the Junior Skills competition, Peter and Fan-tastic Sports will be providing the interactive equipment for the NHL Fan-Fair at Ottawa's newly built, state of the art, downtown convention centre.

“It should be very interesting - you never know what the weather is going to be like here in Ottawa in January, Peter said with a laugh. I hope its not 40 below, but it will be interesting to do it right there on the Rideau Canal in front of the Ottawa Convention Centre. Our company is also running the Fan-Fair for the NHL again this year, so well finish up with the big finale out on the ice in the morning and people will have the opportunity to go inside to the warm Fan-Fair where we will have 14 interactive lanes set up.

The dedication to innovative ideas and all the hard work done by Peter, his partners and colleagues at Fan-tastic Sports, has made the company a leader in the industry. It is a tremendous achievement to be recognized by the NHL and a company like Canadian Tire to run the Junior Skills events and the All-Star Fan-Fair.

“It really is an honour for my partner, Bryce Salvador from the New Jersey Devils, myself and the rest of our partners, Peter acknowledged. The whole goal is to provide the best possible experience and the best equipment from a visual and a functional standpoint and put it on a stage. To have the NHL, Canadian Tire, Bauer, Reebok, Easton, all the different groups that come to us and want us to put on events, it really is an honour to be selected - and it is a selection process. As much as we all know that there is a fraternity from guys playing the game and such, those groups expect the best and they dont pick you based on whether you know somebody or not. It is all about knowing that you have the equipment they need and the experience that they want to portray to their fans.

“We have had quite an interesting year, both on and off the ice,” he continued. It has been a lot of fun doing this tour and events like the Detroit Red Wings HockeyFest at the Joe (Joe Louis Arena) and the Washington Capitals Convention. What has also been interesting to see, is that our portable products have really turned a corner this year too. Our entry-level products like the X-Deviator, the X-Passer, our X-Tiles and X-Targets are all starting to take off. Those are our products that any player or parent can purchase for $200 and under to work on their stick handling skills.

“I am also really happy about the blog we have started (blog.xhockeyproducts.com) because we are helping provide information to people; letting them know whats going on out in the community. We will have some guest write-ins from some different players and a drill here and there with some free tips for young hockey players. Having the blog is a great way to give back to the hockey community.

Once the Canadian Tire NHL Junior Skills Competition wraps up on December 16th, Peter and his colleagues at Fan-tastic Sports may be ready for a well-deserved rest, but it will not be too long before the calendar turns to 2012 and they return to Ottawa for more fun on the ice. After attending a Junior Skills event in person, seeing every child smiling and every parent beaming with pride, I think it is safe to say that everyone that took part in the event went home with a memory that will indeed last a lifetime. Congratulations to Peter and everyone at Fan-tastic Sports and Canadian Tire on a job well done!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Patrick Hoffman's Interview with me, The Voice of Sport

Visiting with Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe,
at the 2011 Scotiabank Pro-Am
(Photo TVOS)

Last week, Patrick Hoffman of Kukla's Korner interviewed me to find out how I became a writer and to help shine the spotlight on my work with the NHL Alumni Association.

Ever wondered about how I became a hockey fan? How I became the resident writer for the NHL Alumni Association or who was my favourite interview?
You can find out all those answers and a few more...

Drop by Kukla's Korner and read Patrick's interview with yours truly!

Friday, November 11, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview with Chris Nilan and Stuntman Stu

Chris Nilan and Stu Schwartz - No More Bullies

Andrew Rodger - NHLA Writer

Speaking out against bullying is not new, as it has been an ongoing problem for children of all ages for many years. Whether it is physical, verbal or cyber bullying, the results are the same. The victims live in a shroud of fear and depression. They are often left feeling isolated and alone, wondering if their anguish will ever end. Finding a solution to bullying has taken on a new sense of urgency in recent years, as a growing number of young people that are being victimized by bullies, like 15-year old Jamie Hubley in Ottawa, believed that their only solution was to take their own lives. The common goal of speaking out about bullying has brought Chris Nilan and Stu Schwartz to the forefront of the discussion, as they help to raise awareness about this complicated subject.

Lend your hand
to the Majic 100
No More Bullies campaign

A Stanley Cup champion in 1986 with the Montreal Canadiens, Chris Nilan is one of the most popular players in the storied history of the illustrious Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. On a team filled with future Hall of Famers, Chris was a fierce competitor that brought toughness and a never-quit attitude to the Canadiens lineup during the 1980’s. While he defended his teammates on a regular basis by dropping the gloves, he was more than a fighter - he was a leader.

Stu Schwartz is a popular radio host in Ottawa and if you are familiar with his work on Majic 100, you may know him better by his nickname, Stuntman Stu. While he spends his mornings helping listeners start their day and head off to work, he is also the PA Announcer for the National Hockey Leagues Ottawa Senators. A former Montrealer, Stu is very active in the Ottawa community, helping numerous charities and organizations.

A victim of bullying himself, Stu commented on his radio show that if he had to visit every school in Ottawa to speak out about bullying, he would gladly do it. Some people said ‘that would take twenty years’ and he replied - then that’s how long I will be visiting schools. When his wife suggested he write ‘No More Bullies’ on his hand and circulate the picture via Twitter (@stuntmanstu), he admitted that he was doubtful at first that it would have an impact. However, it has given a voice to many that felt they were powerless to speak up; hundreds of pictures have been posted on the Majic 100 ‘No More Bullies’ Facebook page. (www.nomorebullies.ca)

“It took a few minutes for me to wrap my head around it,” Stu said about following up on his wife’s idea. “But, as I was writing it on my hand, it was like a light bulb went off in my head. I thought that this was actually a great way for people to show their support. You don’t have to go protest on Parliament Hill; it’s a way to show your support and it is something that everybody can do.”

Ottawa radio host
Stuntman Stu
That age-old adage, a picture is worth a thousand words certainly rings true these days, as children, adults, entire families, police officers, teachers, the Mayor of Ottawa and the city councillors are all lending their support and their hand to ‘speak’ out against bullying. Much to Stu’s surprise, shortly after sending out his ‘No More Bullies’ picture, Chris Nilan sent out a similar picture via his @KnucklesNilan30 Twitter account.

“Within a couple of hours of doing it, Chris tweeted a picture with his Stanley Cup ring on backwards and ‘No More Bullies’ written on his hand. The minute I saw that, I was like ‘Wow, why would he do that?’ Now though, I have stopped asking why because I have been blown away by the support from everyone!”

“It’s been great to have so many people involved,” Stu said. “But when you get somebody from the sports world that you grew up watching taking part, that’s pretty cool. It’s Chris putting his name out there, saying he believes in bringing an end to bullying and that’s very admirable.”

Speaking out against bullying and standing up for kids is a natural instinct for the legendary Habs forward. He explained that standing up for others extends beyond his time in the NHL and it is something he has done his entire life.

“It’s funny, some people think it’s quite ironic that I am doing this now, but I don’t see the irony in it at all,” Chris said on the phone from Montreal. “It’s all I have ever done. Growing up as a kid, I stood up for my friends. I have been in situations before in the city, growing up in my neighbourhood, when kids were being picked on. I always stuck up for my friends and even complete strangers at times.”

“I hate to see it happen to any kid! I can only imagine the emotional, mental and sometimes physical torment that one goes through when you are subjected to that day after day. When no one helps them and they are alone, on that little island all by themselves.”

Bullying has become a multi-layered problem in today’s technological world. While many adults think of the physical and verbal aspects of bullying, it has also crossed over to the cyber world as well. The anonymous nature of the online world has led bullies to strike out in increasingly aggressive ways. Bullying can no longer be perceived as being a problem that only takes place during school hours. Victims were once able to escape to the safety of their houses, but now the abuse can follow them right into their homes.

“I experienced that form of bullying as well,” Stu confided. “I think that now that I am an adult, I can deal with it much better then I could when I was a child. I can’t imagine what it is like to be a child today and be bullied. I think now, it has become less about being beat up and more about the cyber-bullying. The word bullying just covers such a wide, wide base.”

“Whether it is cyber-bullying or whatever way that it happens, it’s a terrible thing,” added Chris. “People can get on a computer today and use that as an avenue to torment people, spreading false rumours or saying things that directly hurt or affect those kids that are perceived as weaker or maybe are a little more timid and have a hard time to gather up the strength to stand up for themselves.”

“Kids don’t understand that when they tease and pick on other kids what it can do to them,” he continued. “They don’t realize the emotional scars that those things leave on kids that are bullied. The emotional hurt, the pain, the loneliness of going home every night as the kid that is picked on. When there is nobody there to stick up for you - it is the worst feeling in the world.”

Part of the problem with bullying is that many children will stand by and watch it happen. Whether it is out of fear or indifference, they do not speak out or stand up for their classmate. This contributes to that sense of isolation for bullying victims.

“They don’t say anything to their teachers or the cops because they don’t want to be perceived as someone that is a ‘rat’,” stated Chris. “In a situation like that though, what allegiance do they have to the person that is picking on a kid and doing what they’re doing? There should be no allegiance. There might be some fear because that person who goes and tells is probably retaliated against. That’s why a lot of people don’t step up and say something, but people have to start to step up and speak out. More importantly, educators, teachers and people that are in the school system have to take it more seriously and there has to be education and some kind of punishment for these actions too.”

As previously mentioned, more and more young people victimized by bullies feel that their only solution, their only escape from the emotional and physical pain of bullying, is to take their own lives. The constant torment and isolation leads to depression and they simply cannot take the abuse any more. It is a tragic situation that requires us as a society to stand up and say this cannot continue. We have to bring about change!

Habs Legend Chris Nilan
“We want to be able to talk to kids and teach them,” Chris explained. “To have them learn that what they are doing can really, really hurt someone. It can force someone like Jamie Hubley in Ottawa to take his own life to get away from the torment. A kid that reached out for help and couldn’t get it. A kid that was told, it’s not a big deal and was brushed aside. It was a big deal to him; it was such a big deal that he took his own life. It’s just a terrible, terrible place for a kid to be!”

“For Jamie Hubley’s memory to stay alive, I think he has to be the last one,” Stu said, his voice filled with emotion. “We do not want to see what happened to Jamie happen in Ottawa or anywhere else again. No child should have to experience that, no adult should have to experience that. I am not proposing that we all sit around and hold hands by the campfire. We are all different and have different views - people are different, that’s just the way it is. If you don’t like somebody, don’t pay any attention to them, just leave them alone.”

Those who knew Jamie Hubley say that the young man was a talented singer and actor. He had a smile ready for anyone that needed one, but he battled with depression caused by the constant bullying he experienced at school. His father told CBC News that Jamie was “the kind of boy that loved everybody” and he couldn’t understand why others could be so cruel. Jamie was bullied for being openly gay, as well as the fact that he loved figure skating. It is a tragedy that could have been avoided. We need to embrace our differences - our individual differences are what make our society great. As Stu said, we do not want to see this happen ever again.

When the Season Three cast of the CBC’s Battle of the Blades heard about Jamie’s passing, they too joined in the discussion about bullying. All of the participants dedicated their skating programs to Jamie and posted special video messages at the Battle of the Blades website (www.cbc.ca/battle), extending their condolences to the Hubley family, as well expressing the need for the bullying to end.

Jeremy Roenick - “I was born and raised to treat other people like I wanted to be treated myself. There is no room in this world for bullying. You might think that you are making yourself look cool or look better, but really, you are making yourself look like one of the most despicable people in the world. We are here to respect each other, help each other and enjoy a life that God has given us. If you are being bullied, please reach out to your parents, reach out to a teacher or a friend... Don’t create nightmares, build dreams.”

Bryan Berard - “If we see bullying, on the playgrounds, in school, or wherever it is, I think we should stand up for each other and help each other out and stop bullying. We really have to get that message out there to help kids. Also, speak up if you are having a tough time, whether it’s at school, at work, wherever you are, we can reach out and help each other. We can save lives.”

Brad May - “It should not matter if you are gay or if you are straight, if you play hockey or if you are a figure skater, the bullying and the ridiculing has to stop. We are skating for Jamie, we are skating for all of the kids that are bullied and please, if you are one doing the bullying - you have to stop.”

Chris has already spoken at several schools about the dangers and effects of bullying and he is actively working towards starting several projects with the No More Bullies message. While kids may not always think it is ‘cool’ to listen to their teachers, hopefully, having a Stanley Cup champion speaking out will get their attention.

“If I can help spread a message, then that’s great,” Chris said. “But it is going to come down to the educators, the teachers and the people in the schools every day to be more active when it comes to reporting these incidents. Kids need to get out of their comfort zone and overcome the fear of retaliation and saying something. It’s making teachers aware that there are vulnerable kids, constantly being terrorized.”

“It’s something I am passionate about it and I’ll help any way I can. We are doing some things at my website (www.knucklesnilan.com) and we are making some shirts with the ‘No More Bullies’ message and we’ll donate the proceeds to an organization that works to help kids. Hopefully, we can help these kids get the help that they need.”

Stu and his colleagues at Majic 100 are embarking on a series of school visits in the Ottawa area starting this month, hoping to raise awareness about the dangers of bullying as well. It is a message that kids, teachers, parents, all of us need to hear and take to heart. Standing by on the sidelines is no longer an option.

“I’m doing this because I was bullied,” Stu said. “I am also doing this because I don’t want my kids to be bullied and experience that in any way, shape or form. We live in a community - this is what we do. When a story came out at the start of the school year about an incident at a Nepean high school, I felt very passionate about doing something because it brought back a lot of memories for me that were pretty painful.”

“I think we have a really good presentation, with some experience, some amazing stories and messages that we hope will sink in,” he continued. “To the bullies sitting in the crowd, who may laugh it off at the beginning of the presentation, I hope that by the end of it they think twice and realize what words can do.”

At the end of each interview, I asked Stu and Chris to speak directly to the young hockey fans that visit the NHL Alumni website. It is time to change our attitudes, not only about bullying, but also about how we treat each other on a daily basis. Whether it is at work, at home, online, or simply passing each other on the street, it is time for change and it is certainly time for us all to lend a hand and say it is time for No More Bullies.

“Words can kill,” Stu said emphatically. “If a young person reads this and doesn’t understand what I mean by that, let me explain. When you put words out there on a social media site, when you email someone hurtful things and you think you are just kidding around, the person on the other end of that tweet or Facebook message may not see it that way. You really have to think every time you post something, that this could have some serious repercussions, somebody on the other end may not see the humour and they may be hurt by it.”

“Just understand,” Chris began. “That when you say something bad about someone else, how much it really hurts them inside - understand how much you can hurt a person. If you are a kid that is not involved with bullying, but you see it happening, step in and help that person. Whether it is going to a teacher or the police, step up and try to protect that kid that is being picked on and bullied. Step in there, maybe get out of your comfort zone, and try to hep that person. Go to a teacher, guidance counsellor, police officer, public safety official, anybody, to try to get their attention and make them aware of the situation. It’s not just physical bullying, words can hurt just as much as any weapon or fist. Actually, they can hurt a lot more!”

Chris and Stu are helping to lead the way, but it is time for all of us to get involved. We must stand up and deliver the message - it is time for a world with no more bullies.

If you are a victim of bullying and feel isolated and alone, please know that you are not alone. It is important to speak to your parents, a teacher, anyone that will listen. If they do not take you seriously, try again. If you need help or need advice on how to speak to someone about bullying, call the Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 - they are there to help too.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview with Lanny McDonald - 2011 NHLA Man of the Year

Andrew and Lanny at the 2011 Scotiabank Pro-Am
in Toronto (May 2011)
Photo by TVOS (copyright TVOS)
Every year at their annual Gala Dinner, the NHL Alumni Association honours one of its members as the Man of the Year. The award recognizes an individual who has worked tirelessly in their community and throughout the hockey world assisting those in need, as well as fulfilling the mission of the NHL Alumni Association - helping to grow the game of hockey at all levels.

In previous years, the Man of the Year Award has been presented to some of the greatest players in the long and storied history of the NHL. Hockey legends and ambassadors for the game like Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, Johnny Bower and Bobby Hull, to name a few of the past winners. This year was no exception, as the NHL Alumni Association honoured Hall of Famer and Stanley Cup champion, Lanny McDonald.

With his wife Ardell and youngest son Graham in attendance, as well as a room full of friends and NHL Alumni supporters, McDonald was presented the 2011 Man of the Year Award by his long-time friend and former Calgary Flames teammate, Colin Patterson.

“When you are honoured by your peers when you are just trying to do the right thing, it’s pretty cool,” Lanny said in a recent interview. “When you look around the room at all the alumni guys that were there, it was so much fun to renew old acquaintances. Some guys played with you, some guys played against you and we ran the heck out of each other during our playing days, but we are all on the same team now.”

“When I would look up behind me at the banners of the previous winners, it was pretty unbelievable. It’s a who’s who of hockey - Jean Beliveau, Johnny Bower, Bobby Hull. It doesn’t get much better than that. I was honoured, humbled and a little bit embarrassed all at the same time.”

While he has been honoured in the past with various awards for his accomplishments, both on and off the ice, being recognized by his peers and fellow alumni members was a special moment for the man Patterson describes as the “Jean Beliveau of his era”.

“It’s pretty incredible because as I mentioned, you could run the heck out of each other and in the old days, you didn’t even talk to each other - not even during the off season! Yet, when your playing days are over, you become part of this bigger team. Whether you are raising money at events in your own hometown or with the Toronto Maple Leafs Alumni, the Vancouver or Calgary Alumni, you are all on the same team now.”

“I have had the opportunity to do some pretty outstanding things,” Lanny said. “Like visiting our troops in Afghanistan. To do something for your country when you are so proud of being a Canadian and so proud of the men and women in the Canadian Armed Forces, it is outstanding to be honoured by the Alumni Association as we share a few stories and a few laughs at the Gala.”

Honoured at the NHL Alumni Gala Dinner with McDonald, was Ron MacLean from the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada (Keith McCreary 7th Man Award) and Earl Cook (Ace Bailey Award of Courage). MacLean’s role in the hockey world is well known, but Earl also made a significant impact on the game during his short life. A young man from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Earl battled through many challenges and health issues before he passed away a week before the Gala at the age of 23 from cancer. An avid hockey player and Detroit Red Wings fan, Earl was an inspiration to everyone he met and everyone that heard his story.

“First of all,” Lanny said. “How cool is it to be honoured with two people that obviously love the game the way those two guys do! I thought that the speech Mike Babcock did honouring Earl - the way Earl was, not only as a person but also as a Detroit Red Wings fan - that was incredible. To be honoured with Ron MacLean too, who to me is Mr. Hockey because of how he represents himself on a daily basis as a great ambassador for the game, I think he’s the ultimate professional.”

During my recent interview about the Gala Dinner and the award winners with Mark Napier, the Executive Director of the NHL Alumni Association, we discussed Lanny’s charitable work and his tireless efforts to help people and communities in need; much of it happening away from the spotlight of the media. I asked Lanny where his giving nature comes from. Was it something his parents instilled in him or did he learn about being involved in the community from his coaches and teammates?

“It was a little bit of everything, but especially growing up, it came from my dad,” he recalled. “We didn’t have a whole lot, but we had a whole lot if you know what I mean. Dad instilled in us, a love for sport, a love for hard work and a love of our community. If there was any project going on in the community, my dad was right in the middle of it. Whether it was a fundraising event or someone’s garage or barn had burned down and the community had gathered to rebuild it, he just loved being in the center of it. He was never asking for thanks or praise at the end of the day, he knew it was about a job well done. When everyone knows everybody else in a community, it’s not too hard to roll up your sleeves and find a way to help get the job done.”

Whether you have played in one game at the NHL level or one thousand, you are an equal member of the NHL Alumni Association. Teammates and former opponents share in the special bond of being part of hockey’s greatest family. When a new member joins the family, Lanny is there to make them feel like part of the team.

“It’s an honour to be an alumni member,” he said proudly. “When a young guy walks into the dressing room, he never knows what’s waiting for him on the other side. If you can meet him with a smile and a handshake, it takes the pressure off and makes him feel pretty special right away. There certainly is a life after hockey and the bond that you share with these guys, helps you in whatever you choose to do later.”

To help honour Lanny, I asked a few of his friends and fellow NHLA members to share their thoughts about our 2011 NHL Alumni Man of the Year:

Theo Fleury: For a young hockey player coming into the NHL there was no better role model than Lanny McDonald. Class, Integrity and an all around great guy!

Laurie Boschman: I played with Lanny when I was first drafted by the Maple Leafs. He is a first class individual and along with Ron Ellis, Darryl Sittler and Borje Salming, Lanny was one of the players that was instrumental in helping me and showing me how to be a professional.

Steve Webb: Being from Toronto, you grew up watching Lanny play in the Maple Leafs uniform and of course, he won the Stanley Cup with the Calgary Flames - he was a great leader there. To be able to rub shoulders with him at different events, like the Pro-Am for Baycrest, seeing how he conducts himself. He’s just the perfect example of an athlete representing his sport with class and dignity. Lanny’s a great person to be around and a really funny guy. When you walk into these Alumni events, you’re sort of like the young rookie walking into a veteran room again and he’s the first guy to say ‘Hey kid, how are you doing?’

Ryan VandenBussche: I have never seen a guy with so much energy as Lanny has! I went to Afghanistan with him for two years in a row and he was the most energetic guy out on the tarmac, which is pretty hard on the knees. He was right in the corners, getting the ball out to Mark Napier. He’s a pretty neat guy and when he says something, you know he is saying something important. He’s just an all around great guy.

Ryan Walter: Lanny was a terrific competitor any time you played against him. One of the greatest things you could say about a hockey player - I would say this about Wayne Gretzky and I would say it about Lanny McDonald too, they came to play every night and played their best game on the ice. I think the other thing you could say about him is that he is such a great ambassador for our game and has a real love for people. I have always been impressed by Lanny.

Kraig Neinhuis: Lanny engages in each and every person and conversation. He makes you feel as though you’re a special person when he speaks to you. He remembered facts and tidbits about me as he introduced me to his wife and son at the NHL Alumni Gala as if I’m an old friend. He’s a warm wonderful person.

Paul Harrison: He is an exceptional individual and he could certainly shoot the puck, I can attest to that - I’ve still got the bruises because I was the target! Quite frankly, I think that Lanny owes me for his success. (Paul said this with a laugh) If he didn’t have me as a target to shoot at during our years in Toronto, he would never have been the great goal scorer that he was - he should acknowledge my contribution to his career.

Colin Patterson: He is the Jean Beliveau of his era - A great player and ambassador for the game of hockey who acted with lots of class. When we won the cup, the player on the team that we were happiest for was Lanny.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview with Paul Harrison

Making it to the NHL as a player requires a great deal of hard work and dedication to the game of hockey. It is not an easy path and unlike most professions, a life in pro sports is finite. By the time a player reaches his mid-thirties, he must begin to think about finding a new path to follow and contemplate life after hockey. When he left the game, Paul Harrison used all that he had learnt from his life in hockey, and not just his time in the NHL, to embark on a new career path helping his community as a valued member of the Ontario Provincial Police Force.

“It was difficult,” Harrison said of his transition to life after hockey. “I really do credit getting into policing as being a salvation for me. I retired in 1983 and immediately joined the Police Force, which gave me the chance to join a new team. It gave me that same sense of camaraderie and teamwork, so I think it was natural for me to get into policing. It was a challenging time though. You really question all your years of hard work to get to the NHL level because all of a sudden it’s gone.”

“I only played for eight years and certainly didn’t leave the game because I was tired of it,” he said with a laugh. “I couldn’t get anyone to pay me so it was time to find a different line of work.”

Harrison’s eight seasons as a goaltender in the NHL were with the Minnesota North Stars, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Sabres and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Selected in the third round (40th overall) in the 1975 entry draft after playing with the Oshawa Generals in the Ontario Hockey League, he made his debut in the NHL during the 1975-76 season. Working as a backup goaltender for much of his career, he played a career-high 30 games in the 1979-80 season while with the Maple Leafs.

The late 1960’s and early 1970’s was an exciting time for young hockey players looking to break into the world of professional hockey. The NHL expanded from the Original Six era (Montreal, Toronto, Chicago, Detroit, Boston and the New York Rangers) to twelve teams in 1967 with the addition of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Minnesota, Los Angeles and Oakland. By 1974, the number of teams had risen to eighteen. As the NHL expanded, the creation of the rival World Hockey Association (WHA) in 1972 also provided new job opportunities in the professional ranks.

“I think everybody dreams of playing in the NHL, but back when it was the Original 6 or Original 12, the likelihood of making it to the show was pretty slim. Expansion in 1967 and in 1972 certainly opened the door and of course, the creation of the World Hockey Association gave you even more options. I suppose from a fan point of view it diluted the talent to a degree, but it certainly gave players like myself a chance to play.”

“I was also drafted by Cincinnati, I think it was in the 5th round of the WHA Draft, but honestly, I was never even approached by them,” Paul recalled. “The only reason I knew about it was because I read it in The Hockey News.”

Harrison’s first NHL team, the North Stars, called Minnesota home from 1967 until 1993, when the organization moved to Texas and became the Dallas Stars. However, much to the delight of hockey fans in the state of Minnesota, the NHL returned in 2000 when the Wild entered the league as an expansion team. Despite losing their original franchise, hockey fans in Minnesota are well known for being passionate about the game. I asked Paul what it was like to play there.

“Minnesota was a fabulous hockey town, but it was a challenging hockey town,” he explained. “It is a lot like Toronto is, in the sense that the fans know the game and they demanded a lot out of you as a player. If we weren’t competitive, we had a hard time getting fans into the building and yet they would fill the high school rinks and the University rinks for tournaments. On occasion, we were outdrawn by high school hockey. It was an interesting place to play for sure.”

Harrison grew up in the Northern Ontario town of Timmins, which is approximately 550 kilometres (350 miles) north of Toronto. Paul explained that in Timmins, the hockey fans at the time cheered for the Toronto Maple Leafs or their archrivals, the Montreal Canadiens. Although, with their proximity to Toronto and the success of the Maple Leafs in the 1960’s, it is easy to imagine that the Canadiens fans were outnumbered.

“It was a dream come true,” Paul said of wearing the famous blue and white of the Maple Leafs. “Timmins has such a rich history of Toronto Maple Leaf hockey players - Bill Barilko being the most famous from our area. Frank Mahovlich is from our area, as is Allen Stanley. If you want to look at the surrounding region there is Gus Mortenson and Dick Duff, and Ted Lindsay who is from Kirkland Lake - this is all a stone’s throw from Timmons. So, the Leafs and hockey were a big part of Northern Ontario culture.”

There is a shared bond amongst the hockey players that spent time in the NHL and friendships that will last a lifetime. Harrison cherishes the opportunity to see his former teammates and fellow NHL Alumni members when he travels to Toronto to watch games in person. He also takes part in the Alumni Hockey Tour games when he is called upon, although he said jokingly that he doesn’t think they call on him for his goal scoring ability.

In our conversation, Harrison spoke about the importance of the NHL Alumni Association and the programs that assist former players make the transition to life after hockey. He has taken part in several workshops himself, learning about broadcasting, public speaking and operating a small business.

“I just loved the opportunity to learn and bond with former teammates and people that you competed against,” he said. “I also enjoyed working with the newer guys that I didn’t even know before taking part in the workshops, but we were all coming from the same place. We were all looking to do the best with our lives after hockey and utilizing the skills we learned as hockey players. The Alumni Association’s programs are just amazing for guys looking to make that transition and I wholeheartedly endorse it for anybody getting out of the game now. It actually doesn’t matter when you got out of the game, they are there to help you - it’s incredible!”

As a member of the Ontario Provincial Police in Timmins, Harrison has been instrumental in the ongoing success of their local D.A.R.E program, which works with children of all ages to inform them about the dangers of drug use. Originally approached to help raise funds for the program, he has been actively involved ever since. When speaking about the early days of the program in Timmins, Paul reminisced about how the Leafs Alumni Association became involved and helped the fledgling program.

“Around the time that I was asked to help, Carl Brewer was in the area visiting,” he said. “Carl being the type of person that he is, he is always interested in what you are doing, so I explained the situation to him. Carl brought it up at the next Leafs Alumni meeting and they gave us $5,000 to go towards our drug prevention programs. When you don’t have any money, that was a huge amount and more importantly, it gave me that association with the Leafs Alumni and it has really snowballed ever since.”

Substance abuse not only effects the person involved, but their families and the community as a whole as well. Drug prevention and education at an early age is one of the keys to solving the problem before it even begins. Getting kids involved in a sport like hockey will not only give them something to focus on instead of possibly experimenting with drugs, it is also a perfect way to teach some important life skills. Through hockey, children learn the value of working together as a team, how to successfully deal with disappointment or failure and the importance of working towards common goals that are worthwhile and fulfilling.

“I was cut three times from minor hockey teams before I made it to the NHL,” Paul confided. “They were setbacks that you either dealt with and used as a steppingstone or you just gave up. I was never one to give up. I always had an ‘I’ll show you attitude’, so if someone said I couldn’t do it, that made me work that much harder to show them that they were wrong.”

As a way to fund and continue the D.A.R.E program, the NHL Alumni Hockey Dream Draw was created sixteen years ago. Registered with the Ontario Lottery Corporation, the draw not only helps with the drug prevention programs, it helps teams and minor hockey associations offset the rising costs for families with children playing hockey.

Tickets for the draw sell for $5, with $3 going directly to the team selling the ticket, making the project a tremendous way for teams to help themselves as they help others. As of October 21st, all tickets for this year’s draw had been distributed - an astounding 50,000 tickets.

“It has grown by leaps and bounds! Last year, I think we grossed almost $170,000 with it and we are hoping to reach $250,000 this year. With the rapid growth of the Hockey Dream Draw, we have been able to offer it back into other positive youth initiatives. That is the mandate of our local non-profit board, to help youth programs. It is my belief that playing minor hockey is the original drug prevention program in Canada. It is really important that kids have the opportunity to play and because of the high cost of hockey, a lot of kids are missing out. Yes, we do this fundraiser for minor hockey associations and minor hockey teams, but we are also involved in equipment drives, getting hockey equipment into the hands of kids that can’t afford it.”

“Growing up, I never had new equipment,” Harrison continued. “I don’t think I had brand new equipment until I played junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals. Everything I had was hand-me-down and I was happy to have it! With the equipment today, kids outgrow it long before they wear it out, so a lot of this stuff is in excellent shape. If we can recycle it and put it to good use, then I think that’s great.”

With the support of Leafs Alumni and the NHL Alumni Association, as well as the NHL teams and players that participate each year, the winner of the Hockey Dream Draw experiences a once in a lifetime trip. The grand prize is an all expenses paid trip to become part of an NHL team and experience life as a member of hockey’s greatest family. The winner and a guest will take in several games in the host city with VIP tickets, access to team practises and attend team or alumni events, with the opportunity to get autographs and pictures whenever possible. One unique aspect of the Hockey Dream Draw, which has helped make the project successful, is that the person that sells the winning ticket also wins the grand prize.

“The teams involved have been very generous and that is in large part due to the alumni associations arranging access for us to get into these areas like practices and locker rooms,” Paul said. “The players are down to earth people. More often than not, if you are polite and respectful, they will spend time with you and talk with you. The last two years have been amazing for the access that we have had.”

“That’s what makes this whole draw special - anyone can buy a hockey ticket and go to a hockey game, but we try to pull out all the stops and really let our winners experience what it is like to be an NHL hockey player. Short of getting out on the ice and taking part in the game, you’re right there with them - you’re doing the travelling, going to the morning skate, getting caught up in the excitement of the game. It’s just an incredible experience!”

Paul Harrison’s journey brought him from Timmins, Ontario to the National Hockey League and back home again. Dedicated to helping others in his community and determined to make a difference in the lives of young people, Paul truly embodies the spirit of the phrase ‘hockey’s greatest family’. With the assistance of the Toronto Maple Leafs Alumni and the NHL Alumni Association, as well as everyone that takes part in the Hockey Dream Draw, he is changing lives and sharing the dream.

For more information on the Hockey Dream Draw and pictures from previous winning trips, you can visit their website www.hockeydreamdraw.ca and you can also follow them on Twitter (@hockeydreamdraw)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The 2011 NHL Alumni Gala and Grapes with the Greats - Interview with Mark Napier

Mark Napier and Andrew Rodger at the
2011 "Grapes with the Greats"
(Photo by Dianne Rodger, copyright The Voice of Sport)
Every year, the NHL Alumni Association honours individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the hockey community and put forth the extra effort to help grow the game at all levels. On September 26th and 27th, members of the NHL Alumni Association and their supporters gathered in Toronto for the annual NHL Alumni Gala Dinner and Awards, as well as a wine tasting event known as Grapes with the Greats.

With Claude Lemieux and Jeremy Roenick sharing the hosting duties at the Gala Dinner, the 2011 Man of the Year Award was presented to Stanley Cup Champion, Hall of Famer and hockey legend Lanny McDonald. The Keith McCreary ‘7th Man’ Award, which recognizes a person outside of the Alumni Association that has made an exceptional contribution to the game, was presented to Ron MacLean from the CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. The recipient of this year’s Ace Bailey Award of Courage was Earl Cook. An inspirational young man from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Earl touched many lives before he passed away on September 18th at the age of 23.

The Gala Dinner and Grapes with the Greats brings together multiple generations of NHL Alumni members and NHL Alumni supporters. It provides an opportunity to reminisce and catch up with each other, as they celebrate hockey’s greatest family. In a recent interview, Mark Napier, the Executive Director of the NHL Alumni Association, shared his thoughts on the events and this year’s honourees.

“I think we are all still big kids at heart, so it is pretty impressive to see some of the heroes that you had growing up, like Johnny Bower and Ted Lindsay,” Napier explained. “You see all the different generations coming together and a lot of them haven’t seen each other for a long time. They all seem to pick up right where they left off. That’s the part I personally enjoy the most, to see our guys with their wives, getting together and having a fun night. A lot of times, we won’t see each other for another year, but that gives us something to look forward to - getting together next year!”

The NHL Alumni Association is supported by the National Hockey League and the NHL Players’ Association. Having NHL executives like Bill Daly and Jim Gregory, as well as the NHLPA’s Donald Fehr in attendance and sharing their thoughts on the importance of the work being done by the Alumni Association with those in attendance was a special moment for Napier.

“That was pretty nice,” Mark acknowledged. “It is a busy, busy time of year for all of them and to make the effort to attend was very impressive and I thank them all for that. For them to take the time to show us that the NHL Alumni Association is important to them means a lot to us.”

The list of NHL Alumni members who have been honoured as the Man of the Year is an impressive collection of some of the greatest legends that have taken to the ice in the NHL - Gordie Howe, Johnny Bower, Jean Beliveau, Guy Lafleur, Bobby Hull, Ted Lindsay, Rod Gilbert, Al Arbour and Andy Bathgate. Whether you have had the pleasure of spending time with Lanny McDonald, or simply followed his illustrious career as a fan, it should come as no surprise that this tremendous ambassador for the game joined this list of hockey legends as the 2011 Man of the Year.

“I certainly don’t think our Board of Directors could have picked a finer guy,” Napier said about choosing McDonald as this year’s recipient. “He’s loved by everybody first and foremost, but what he has done after he has finished playing is pretty incredible. He’s done so much charitable work and so many good things, stuff that goes unrecognized. He’s a very special person and a very special man. You could see that he was touched by being honoured, but he was the right guy to honour with all that he has done. Whenever Lanny is called upon for charitable events, he’s always there.”

Speaking with Colin Patterson after the event, he described his former Calgary Flames teammate as “The Jean Beliveau of his era” - a sentiment that Napier and everyone in attendance would certainly share.

“He’s not exaggerating,” Mark agreed. “Lanny is a very special guy and he deserves to be our 2011 Man of the Year.”

The 7th Man Award is named in honour of the memory of Keith McCreary, a former Chairman of the NHL Alumni Association who passed away in 2003. After a lengthy playing career in both the American Hockey League and the NHL, McCreary was instrumental in the growth of the NHL Alumni Association as their Chairman. This year, Ron MacLean joins Dick Irvin, Scotty Morrison, Dr. Brian Shaw, Brian O’Neill, Jim Gregory, Norm Jewison, Joey Moss, John Ashbridge and Jack Fitzsimmons on the list of deserving Keith McCreary 7th Man Award winners. The award honours a person that never played in the NHL but has worked to help grow the game of hockey at all levels.

Best known for his work on Hockey Night in Canada, MacLean has been broadcasting since starting on radio in 1978 in Red Deer, Alberta. Along with hosting the national telecasts of Hockey Night in Canada since 1987, MacLean has been the long time partner of Don Cherry on Coaches Corner. Ron is an award-winning broadcaster and he is a Level 5 referee with the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. Since 2009, he has shared the spotlight with four-time World Champion figure skater Kurt Browning as the co-host of the CBC’s Battle of the Blades.

“We have had various winners from all walks of life in the past,” Napier said. “We thought that with all that Ron has done for the game and all that he has done to help grow the game, it was appropriate to honour him this year with the Keith McCreary Award. He’s another one of those really good guys out there.”

The third award presented at the annual Gala Dinner was the Ace Bailey Award of Courage, which honours the memory of former NHL player and scout, Garnet ‘Ace’ Bailey, who passed away in the September 11th tragedies. The award recognizes an individual who has demonstrated exceptional courage and determination in their life.

This year’s Award of Courage recipient, Earl Cook, faced many health challenges in his life and by all accounts, faced them all the same way, with the courage and determination of a champion. Born prematurely with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder, Earl also dealt with Asperger’s syndrome, Tourette syndrome and ADHD. An avid hockey fan and player, when cancer took his leg in 2007, he switched to sledge hockey and continued to cheer on his favourite team, the Detroit Red Wings. Thanks to Darren Dreger of TSN, Earl was introduced to Mike Babcock and a wonderful, inspirational friendship was born.

Sadly, one week before the event, Earl lost his battle with cancer - a battle he had fought so bravely. At the Gala Dinner, Babcock shared several stories about his young friend and how Earl had touched the lives of the Red Wings family. After an eloquent and very moving speech, Babcock presented the Ace Bailey Award of Courage to Earl’s foster mother Debbie Hopkins.

“He was quite an inspiration and one of the things we really hoped was that he could be there in person,” Mark said of Earl. “While I never met Earl, it sounds like that’s how he would have wanted it to be - a celebration of his life. I’m sure he was looking down on us that night and smiling. It puts things in perspective - he was very deserving and the way that the evening turned out was very special.”

The following evening at the Grapes with the Greats event, those in attendance mingled with NHL Alumni members, sharing stories as they sampled an exquisite collection of wines from the Niagara region’s Diamond Estate. The highlight of the evening was the NHL Alumni Hat Trick, a refreshing blend of Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Chardonnay. Hat Trick will be available soon at the LCBO and proceeds from each bottle sold will help support the NHL Alumni Association’s charitable causes. The Alumni Association along with Scotiabank - a strong supporter of the Alumni Association’s efforts to help grow the game of hockey at all levels, co-hosted Grapes with the Greats.

“Scotiabank has been a great partner with us,” noted Napier. “They love hockey obviously, and for us personally, they have been a pleasure to deal with. They are so committed to hockey and hockey at the grassroots level. Our great memories when we were five or six years old were out on in the backyard, or for me it was going down to the schoolyard and playing hockey all day long. Coming home with your hands and nose frozen - those are great memories! If we can help some kids, whether they make it to the NHL or not, play this great game of ours and have some fond memories, then we have done our job.”

As a surprise for those in attendance, NHL Alumni member Peter Ing and his company, Fan-tastic Sports, were also at the Grapes with the Greats event. Peter and his business partner, Bryce Salvador from the New Jersey Devils, have designed some remarkable interactive hockey equipment, similar to what you would see in the skills competition at the NHL All-Star game. The equipment allows the participants to test their skills against one another and in this case, against some of the NHL Alumni members. Along with the marvellous wines to be sampled, the Fan-tastic sports equipment was a big hit, providing many laughs and good-natured ribbing amongst the former NHLers.

“They have a nice company going there,” Mark said of Ing’s growing business. “They were down at the Washington Capitals Fan Fair and they agreed to come here and set a few things up for us for the Grapes with the Greats. It makes us proud when we see one of our guys doing well in the business world.”

When you arrive as a guest at an NHL Alumni event, you are greeted with a warm smile and amazed by the decor; everything is immaculate and done to perfection. What you may not know is that a small group of dedicated volunteers, a group that all of the Alumni members are extremely grateful for, did much of the work to prepare for the event.

“We are so lucky to have Scott Holmes and his team of volunteers. There is no chance that we could do these events without them,” Mark explained. “They are so professional and they are so cohesive as a team - they know the events, what needs to be done and the timing of it all. As I said, we are so lucky to have the volunteer team because the work that they do behind the scenes is incredible!”

With this year’s awards handed out, the focus shifts to the upcoming alumni hockey tour, the Scotiabank Pro-Am tournaments and the numerous charitable events held throughout the year. Who will be the 2012 Man of the Year? I for one can’t wait to find out.

Friday, September 30, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview with Ryan VandenBussche

Every member of the NHL Alumni Association has a unique and inspirational story to tell. Not every player ends his career as a Stanley Cup Champion like Lanny McDonald or Ray Bourque did. Not all careers result in 1,000 games played or 1,000 points scored. For some members of hockey’s greatest family, the journey itself is the victory, and what an incredible journey it is.

Ryan VandenBussche grew up playing hockey in Delhi, Ontario (near Simcoe, Ontario). He enjoyed playing the game and hanging out with his friends on the ice. When he watched NHL games, Wendel Clark was his favourite player because of his mix of talent and toughness. As time went on, Ryan’s skills improved and his passion for the game grew as well. He found himself on the path to becoming a professional hockey player after spending four years in the Ontario Hockey League with the Cornwall Royals, Newmarket Royals and the Guelph Storm.

The Toronto Maple Leafs selected VandenBussche in the eighth round of the 1992 Draft (173rd overall) and he began his career in the American Hockey League when his OHL career concluded. He spent two seasons with the St. John’s Maple Leafs before becoming a member of the Binghamton Rangers, the AHL affiliate of the New York Rangers at the time. It was during the 1996-97 season, his second season in Binghamton, that his hard work and dedication paid off - he received the long awaited call to the NHL. I started our interview by asking Ryan if there is a way to describe the feeling of putting on an NHL jersey for the first time.

“Yeah,” he said quickly. “I’ll never forget doing it! It was in New York City and the Rangers had just called me up. I remember being in the dressing room at Madison Square Gardens. I was sitting in my stall and putting on my jersey and thinking, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’”

“I went out and did the warm up but didn’t play in that game - I played the following night in Buffalo. It was an experience that I can never replace because it only happens once. I was six years old when Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier came into the league; fast-forward a number of years and here I am sitting on the bench with them in the NHL. It was quite the thrill for me to play with them. I followed Wayne’s career, as everyone else did in Canada, so it was a real honour to play with him - he was such a skilled player.”

“I was very fortunate to play with some great hockey players,” Ryan recalled. “I played with Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Ulf Samuelsson, Gretzky and Messier in New York. Then I got to play with Mario Lemieux in his final year and with Sidney Crosby too in Pittsburgh.”

VandenBussche would play 27 games over two seasons with the Rangers before a late season trade in 1998 sent him to the Chicago Blackhawks organization. While he continued to spend some time in the AHL, Ryan became a regular in the Blackhawks lineup during the 1999-2000 season - taking to the ice with players like Tony Amonte, Steve Sullivan, Bob Probert, Phil Housley, Alexei Zhamnov and Eric Daze during his time in Chicago.

Casual hockey fans may not realize that the AHL is the second-best league in the world, second only to the NHL itself. Many of the top players we watch in the National Hockey League started their pro careers riding the buses and honing their skills on AHL ice. It can be difficult for players that are not NHL regulars to bounce between leagues, with extra travel and the pressure of displaying their talents while on a call-up. However, when they do get the call to the NHL, they have to take advantage of the opportunity and make the most of every moment and every shift.

“There is a lot of talent in the AHL, absolutely,” VandenBussche said. “At the NHL level, a top-six forward or top-four defenseman is hard to replace but if you are third or fourth liner in the NHL or a six or seventh defenseman, be aware because anyone in the American Hockey League can replace you!”

“It doesn’t matter how many times you get called up,” he continued. “You are just happy to get called up. For me, it was my fourth year of playing pro and I had battled; you have to persevere because there are a lot of ups and downs trying to make it to the greatest league in the world. If you let your highs get too high or your lows get too low, it’s going to be a problem. You have to find a balance, keep your passion and work hard and be hopeful that one day you’ll get the call. When you do get that call - do your best! That’s all you can do.”

VandenBussche is now an active member of the NHL Alumni Association, taking part in numerous charity games and events, including the annual Scotiabank Pro-Am Tournament that raises much-needed funds for Alzheimer’s research. He believes that the Alumni Association has done a tremendous job helping players make the difficult transition to life after hockey. By taking part in the alumni events, Ryan is not only helping others, it also provides him with the opportunity to play with some of the game’s greatest players.

“A lot of the guys that I play with in the charity alumni games were retired before I got into the league. You always heard stories about them or saw them on television. To be able to sit in the same room with them and hear their stories firsthand about how things were back then and how the game was played - it’s great!”

Like many of the NHL Alumni members, Ryan’s charity work extends beyond the alumni events. Now that he is a father himself, he likes to focus on children’s charities when he can and discussed a few of the events he is involved in.

“We did a golf tournament this year for the first time for the Norfolk Breakfast Club. If there is ever a kid that can’t afford to have a proper breakfast, they can come into school early and get a good healthy breakfast before class. It’s about doing the little things like that, helping charities or making a donation. I have a soft spot for kids - seeing kids that are under-privileged or are sick, you just want to help them out.”

“My wife Lisa and I had our first annual Bush-stock this year as well,” Ryan explained. “It was sort of like a mini Woodstock. We had about three hundred people and I think we can grow the event to seven hundred next year. We donate the proceeds to a charity of our choice and it will be towards a kid’s charity for sure. We have a pretty huge property with lots of room for having a big party in my backyard. We had five bands here, with a dinner and that kind of stuff, and we plan on doing it every year around Labour Day Weekend.”

Since he left the game, Ryan has become part of a new team, working with his wife Lisa and his father, Ron VandenBussche, in real estate at Erie Shores Realty Inc, which is part of the Re/Max organization. Together they serve Simcoe, Port Dover, Delhi and all of Norfolk County, which lies on the south coast of Ontario, next to Lake Erie. They offer residential and commercial listings at their website www.teamvandenbussche.com.

Having been around the business thanks to his dad, Ryan realized during the NHL lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, that it was time to look ahead to his life after hockey. He made the decision that when he did retire, he would obtain his real estate license. When he stopped playing professionally in January of 2007, he successfully followed up on his plan.

“It’s a whole other experience from playing hockey,” Ryan said. “In hockey, you know your itinerary for the next eight months when the schedule comes out in July. In the business that I’m in now, you set your own schedule and that’s good because it gives you some flexibility; I kind of like it. Many of the same principals that made you successful in hockey apply to the business world as well.”

The current economic climate has made the real estate business more challenging to say the least. The stock market has experienced a steady upheaval in recent months and unemployment is an issue throughout North America. While these issues have factored into the overall state of the realty business, Ryan explained that being prepared, knowing the business and their customers has helped in these uncertain times. Much like preparing for an opponent in hockey, having a good game plan leads to the best possible results.

“If you are going to list a home for sale, you had better price it accordingly because there is a lot of competition out there. You have to do your due diligence, have a good list price, know what you’re talking about and back it up. You want to give people as much value as possible.”

While the decision to move on from hockey is never an easy one, having a plan in place for the next chapter in his life has allowed Ryan to make the successful transition to life after hockey. A proud father and husband, an active NHL Alumni member with a successful business and great memories of his time in the NHL, he is a tremendous role model for future members of hockey’s greatest family.