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.

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