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.

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