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.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview: Laurie Boschman Discusses the Return of the Jets and Ottawa's 20th Anniversary


NHL Alumni member Laurie Boschman
(Photo: Andrew Rodger TVOS)
The NHL spotlight will shine brightly on two Canadian cities this season. After a lengthy absence, hockey fans in Winnipeg are preparing to welcome back their beloved Winnipeg Jets. Meanwhile, fans in Ottawa will be celebrating the 20th Anniversary of the modern-day Senators. One former NHLer with a strong connection to Winnipeg and Ottawa is NHL Alumni member Laurie Boschman, and he is thrilled for fans in both cities.

During his NHL career, Laurie played for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Edmonton Oilers, Winnipeg Jets, New Jersey Devils and the Ottawa Senators, scoring 229 goals and adding 348 assists in 1,009 games. Selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round (ninth overall) of the 1979 NHL Draft, he spent three seasons with the Leafs and one full season with the Edmonton Oilers before joining the Winnipeg Jets and becoming an integral part of the franchise. When Boschman arrived in Ottawa at the end of his career to join the expansion Senators, he was named the first captain of the revitalized franchise.

In March of 1983, Laurie was traded from Edmonton to the Winnipeg Jets and joined an outstanding group of players that included future Hall of Famer Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, Brian Mullen and Dave Babych. By 1985, the roster included three future NHL Head Coaches in Randy Carlyle, Paul MacLean and Scott Arniel. Laurie’s hard work began to pay off in Winnipeg, as he quickly became a fan favourite in the Prairie town. With a solid lineup and working together as a team, the Jets finished the 1984-85 season with 96 points and a 43-27-10 win/loss record - the best point total in the organization’s history.

“We had some great players,” Boschman recalled in a recent interview. “We just couldn’t get past Edmonton!”

“I have some great memories from Winnipeg and we really did have a great group of guys out there,” he continued. “I was there from 1983 until 1990 and out of those seven years that we were in the Smythe Division, the Stanley Cup Champion came out of our division six times. Edmonton won it five times and Calgary won once. Montreal was the only team to win the Cup that didn’t come from the Smythe.”

“Sometimes you would contain Gretzky and Messier, but then Kurri or Coffey would beat us. Other times, we would contain Coffey and Kurri and then Gretzky would do something spectacular or Grant Fuhr would stand on his head. I think there are seven Hall of Famers from that particular squad - they were just a really tough opponent.”

Younger hockey fans may not recall the Smythe Division of the 1980’s (now the Northwest Division) but the regular season and playoff battles between Edmonton, Winnipeg and the Calgary Flames were legendary. Marty McSorley, a member of the Oilers in the mid-80’s, once told me that teams absolutely hated making the Western swing through Winnipeg, Calgary and Edmonton. Good teams and players would finish the trip with a -13 or -14 plus/minus rating.

In Winnipeg, visiting teams faced the daunting task of shutting down Hawerchuk, Boschman, MacLean and Steen. In Calgary, they had to tangle with Lanny McDonald, Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwnedyk, Gary Roberts, Al MacInnis and Mike Vernon. If you somehow made it through those two teams intact, Edmonton was waiting with future Hall of Famers in Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr. It is impossible to find a comparable situation in today’s NHL. Boschman explained that it was Edmonton’s high tempo, wide-open style that brought out the best in all of them.

“With the style that Edmonton brought to the Smythe Division and the NHL, you had to play and compete against them with their style; they were always willing to trade goals with you. They also had great goaltenders in Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog, and Moog was no slouch as a goaltender, so you had to compete with them at their level.”

“The games were more like 6-5 or 5-4 as opposed to today where you have some lower scoring games. They took lots of chances because their defence was always active. They had Charlie Huddy, Kevin Lowe and of course, Paul Coffey; he could easily bring the puck from end to end and he had a wicked shot too. You couldn’t contain them over a seven game series. You could try, but we weren’t able to do that when I was there. We just weren’t able to beat Edmonton - we got by Calgary but we never could beat Edmonton.”

With the Atlanta Thrashers relocating to Winnipeg this summer, the Jets are alive and well once again. Hockey fans in the province, as well as the members of the original Jets franchise, are thrilled to be back in the NHL and are looking forward to the start of a new chapter in the organization’s history. While Laurie’s Jets never made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, he said he has nothing but great memories from his time in Winnipeg and he is happy to see the NHL return to the city.

“I was surprised that they did call them the Jets,” Laurie said. “I thought that they would go in a different direction, but I am totally fine with that obviously! I am just really happy for the people of Winnipeg and Manitoba. We had a hockey camp out there this summer with Hockey Ministries International and I was there for a week - the excitement was quite palpable within the community. A lot of people are so pleased to be in the big leagues again.”

“They have a pretty good team coming into Winnipeg with Andrew Ladd, Evander Kane, Dustin Byfuglien and Pavelec is a pretty good goaltender too. Eric Fehr is a Manitoba boy, so I think the city of Winnipeg and the province of Manitoba are going to be very happy with their team out there.”

Traded from the Jets to New Jersey in September of 1990, Laurie spent two seasons with the Devils before being claimed by the newly formed Ottawa Senators in the 1992 expansion draft. The original Ottawa Senators franchise was a founding member of the NHL but left the league in 1934. When they returned to the NHL in time for the 1992-93 season, Boschman’s experience and strong work ethic made him a natural choice to be the first player to wear the “C” for the Sens.

As the franchise prepares to celebrate their 20th Anniversary, I asked Laurie if he could believe that twenty years had passed since that first season.

“It really is hard to believe because it has gone by so fast,” he answered. “Our youngest son Jeffrey, who was just an infant when we came here for the 92-93 season, is now heading into his second year at University. I can hardly believe that it has gone by so fast - it truly is amazing!”

“It was a challenging first year and it was challenging to be a part of an expansion team, but it was also an interesting experience because I had never done that in my career. Living in Ottawa since then, it is interesting to see the growth of the team because my wife and I brought up three sons that played hockey and grew up as Sens fans. It is really neat to see that younger generation now that totally embraces this team.”

The Senators are admittedly in the midst of a rebuilding process heading into this season, but it is a far cry from the team’s 10-70-4 record in their expansion year. The organization has grown, spending much of the last decade as one of the league’s most consistent teams and fought their way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. Unlike other expansion franchises in new NHL cities, the Senators had to overcome a unique obstacle in gaining new fans - the Montreal Canadians and the Toronto Maple Leafs were already firmly entrenched in the hearts and minds of hockey fans in Canada’s capital.

“It was a very unique experience for sure and there was a ton of excitement here,” Laurie reminisced. “I think what we noticed back then, was that while we had tremendous fan support right from day one, we also recognized that there were lots of Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadians fans, which still exist in Ottawa today. There was a lot of allegiance to those two brands and so it has taken twenty years to establish a fan base and a brand here in Ottawa. I think the Senators are solidly entrenched in the community now.”

An active member of the Ottawa community, the NHL Alumni and the Senators Alumni Association, Boschman enjoys helping organizations like the Boys and Girls Club and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). Each year, the Sens Alumni take part in the Hope and Heroes benefit dinner, which raises funds for the Ottawa Hospital Foundation.

Since 1985, Laurie has been involved with Hockey Ministries International (HMI) and now serves as their Director for Ottawa and Eastern Ontario. HMI provides young Christian hockey players the opportunity to learn about the game, while exploring and growing their faith. He travels throughout the country speaking with young hockey players, holding clinics and camps, and he works with NHL players interested in helping the organization.

“Working with HMI gives me an opportunity to be involved with two of the great passions I have in life,” Laurie explained. “Expressing my faith in Christ and talking about Bible-based principals, as well as hockey.”

“We provide great instruction from players that have played junior, semi-pro, college, in the American Hockey League, all the way up to the NHL. We also talk about principals from the Bible that have helped us and we feel will help these young athletes in their lives. We talk about how we handled peer pressure and some of the challenges that are out there - how to navigate around them. We find that there are a lot of players that are interested and helped by it, so we feel we are providing a really good service to them.”

Many athletes in baseball, football, basketball and hockey are speaking about their faith, what it means to them and how it has helped them in their lives. There are many highs and lows in the lives of professional athletes - the pressure to succeed is immense. Their performance is constantly questioned; the team’s performance is scrutinized. Laurie explained that he too was up with the highs and down with the lows early in his career, but credits one of his teammates in Toronto for helping him renew his faith.

“When I got to Toronto and sat next to Ron Ellis, there was just something different about him,” he said. “I saw this peace about him that I certainly didn’t have as a 19 year old. I started asking him some questions and he basically talked about his personal faith in Jesus Christ.”

“I come from a religious background and I believed in God and I knew about him, but I didn’t know that I could know him in a personal way - I thought that was just for the priest, the pastor or the minister. When Ron started talking to me about his relationship with God, it got me interested in Christianity. I think more than anything though, what attracted me to the faith was Ron’s life. He was really consistent, he was always the same and had peace no matter what; I wanted the same peace that Ron had.”

Through his work with Hockey Ministries International, Laurie is helping others rediscover their faith and find their own peace of mind, while sharing the knowledge from his hockey career to help grow the game. As the fans in Winnipeg and Ottawa prepare to celebrate their teams, the long-time Jets forward and the Senators’ first captain will be celebrating right along with them.

To learn more about Laurie’s work with HMI, visit their website: www.hockeyministries.org

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview with Ryan Walter

Whether playing in the NHL, working in the business world or taking on the day-to-day challenges that present themselves, life often tests us with obstacles that must be faced head on and overcome. Through his books, speaking engagements and training seminars, NHL Alumni member Ryan Walter is helping others discover their own leadership potential by sharing the knowledge that made him a success, both on and off the ice.

Selected by the Washington Capitals in the first round (2nd overall) in the 1978 Draft, Walter made his NHL debut during the 1978-79 season and had an immediate impact; scoring 28 goals in his rookie season. The leadership qualities that would help him during his career and throughout his life after hockey were apparent right from the start of his career, as he became the youngest captain in the history of the Capitals franchise in his sophomore season. Ryan wore the “C” in Washington until a blockbuster trade sent himself and teammate Rick Green to the Montreal Canadiens in exchange for Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis, Craig Laughlin and Brian Engblom in 1982.

Ryan Walter would finish his career having played 1,003 games over 15 seasons in the league with Washington, Montreal and Vancouver. He retired from hockey after two seasons with his hometown Canucks at the end of the 1992-93 season, but he is best remembered for his time in Montreal wearing the celebrated Bleu, Blanc et Rouge. It was while wearing that legendary jersey that he made two trips to the Stanley Cup Final with the Canadians - winning the Cup in 1986 against the Calgary Flames.

“My wife Jenn and I were in Montreal with the Canadians for nine seasons and we loved it,” Walter recalled. “That first training camp was pretty pressure packed, in that there was a lot of pressure on Rick Green and myself to perform at a high level. I think in 1986, when we finally won the Stanley Cup, some of that pressure came off.”

“It was an awesome experience - it was the days of the Montreal Forum and the ghosts of the Forum. You would look up at the faces of the former players before the games and there was something pretty amazing about the stare in their eyes or whatever it was, but I really loved my time in Montreal.”

“It was wonderful to play my last two years with the Canucks and being from Burnaby, British Columbia - to be able to come home was really great. When I look at my career, to start in Washington, to win and lose a Stanley Cup in Montreal and then finish off in Vancouver, it is almost too good to be true!”

The Stanley Cup victory in 1986 interrupted what could very well have been five in a row for the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers were a powerhouse in the league at that time, a dynasty in the making, but Calgary defeated Edmonton that year in a hard-fought seven game series in the divisional round. With the storied history of the Canadians organization and the emergence in the eighties of the new kids on the block from Edmonton, I was curious - would Ryan have rather tested himself against the Oilers in 1986?

“For us, I don’t think it would have mattered who the opponent was,” reminisced Walter. “Edmonton was a real good team at that point, but Calgary had a very deep team, so we always looked forward to playing both of them. During the year, Edmonton beat us and we beat them, so it was a good rivalry. It would have been good to play them in the playoffs, but we got onto such a roll that year. I’m not going to say the stars aligned, but the guys really pulled together. We were hungry and I’m not so sure it would have mattered which team we played that year.”

Walter described his life after hockey as an interesting evolution. Working as a broadcaster for many years, he went on to become an assistant coach with Alain Vigneault and the Canucks for two seasons (2008-2010) and then Head Coach for Canada’s National Women’s team for the 2010 Four Nations Cup and the 2011 World Championship. Throughout it all, he also worked as a keynote speaker and returned to school to obtain his Master of Arts Degree in Leadership/Business. His schooling solidified the training element of his speaking engagements; helping companies, their sales teams and executives, enhance their leadership capabilities.

“I am a guy that loves leadership,” Ryan said. “I was pushed into a leadership position early on and now that I have studied leadership and continue to learn about leadership, I love teaching others what I have learnt. How can we grow leadership in each other? Over 15 NHL seasons, most of it in Montreal, I was on the leadership team or part of it, and had a chance to watch some of the greatest leaders in the world - Bob Gainey, Serge Savard and Larry Robinson, people like that.”

Along with his speaking engagements and seminars, Ryan has become an accomplished author and is celebrating the release of his fifth book, Hungry! Fuelling Your Best Game. In several of his previous books, he shares the knowledge that he has accumulated from a lifetime in hockey, offering coaching and teaching techniques as well as stories and insights from some of the game’s greatest players and coaches. All are a must-read for players of all ages, coaches and hockey fans. In his latest book, he shares the insights and knowledge from his work with members of the business community.

“I read so much, I think what happens is that my mind gets full and to scratch the itch, I need to write,” Walter said. “We just finished our fifth book and much of the leadership development capacity that we work with Corporate America and Corporate Canada on is in this book. I ask the question, ‘What does it mean to be hungry?’ Corporate Canada asks ‘Are your people engaged?’ but I think hungry takes it to a different level. Do people love their workplace? Do they have passion in their job? Our metaphor is, do you come to work simply to work or do you come to work to win?”

Ryan’s website (www.ryanwalter.com) is very informative and interactive, with video clips of his keynote speeches and training seminars, testimonials from people that have been positively inspired by his work, and much more. When I visited the site, one message that struck a chord with me personally was, “Seeing change as an opportunity.”

“I think that’s the big choice in life isn’t it?” Ryan replied when I mentioned that phrase. “We have a tough go, we mess up, life comes at us and then those next steps are so critical because many of us get caught in the pity party. We never let those difficult times ignite us or create that hungry spirit for what we could do in the future.”

With his new book, Walter not only hopes to help people become better leaders and thrive in their work environment, he is also providing an exciting opportunity for minor hockey teams and youth groups to use it as a fundraiser.

“Jenn and I are very involved with charities, we loving doing that work,” Ryan explained. “For a little while, we are not going to put the new book into bookstores. What we want to do is have the book grow organically and be purchased across Canada through local minor hockey teams. Every sports team, Girl Guides group or Boy Scouts group can utilize this fundraiser. We want to add value to people’s lives and I think the book does that, but this program adds value on a different level.”

Here’s how it works - As an alternative to selling chocolate or an item that is seldom used to raise much-needed funds, organizations can purchase 100 copies of the book at a reduced rate and sell them at the regular cover price. By doing so, they can raise $500 towards helping to cover the costs of their team activities. Along with the opportunity to use the book as a fundraiser, the team or organization will also receive 20 free copies of Hungry! Fuelling Your Best Game.

For more information and all the details, you can visit this website: www.hungryfuellingyourbestgame.com

On August 2nd, the Abbotsford Heat of the American Hockey League announced that Ryan was joining their organization as the new President and CEO. As a Stanley Cup Champion, he brings his experience and winning attitude to the young organization. Leading by example, he can build a successful team on the ice and in the front office.

“I am loving the challenge,” Ryan said about his new job. “I have an on-ice team, but I also have an off-ice team now and I think that’s where personally growing as a leader comes in; that’s why I believe in leadership so much. It’s a key element because I always like to say, you sell products but you lead people. I have been in the seat for a few weeks and it has been a blast. It’s going to be a great challenge and Abbotsford is a wonderful organization with great people - we expect great things to happen!”

The Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks have been rivals for years, battling through many hard-fought regular season and playoff contests in the Smythe Division during the 1980’s and 1990’s. The old Smythe Division rivalry has carried over to the Northwest Division in today’s NHL. I asked Ryan, what is it like to be the Calgary Flames AHL affiliate in the heart of Canucks country?

“We are thankful for our relationship with Calgary and with the players that they are able to provide us, but the way we position it is that the top 700 players are in the NHL. The next 700 are in the AHL and are hungry to move up. I think it was 86% of players in the NHL last year played in the AHL at one point. If you want to come to a great game, independent of Calgary or anybody else, for $20 a ticket instead of $200 a ticket we can offer pretty good value.”

A Stanley Cup Champion, keynote speaker, successful author, team builder and leader; Ryan Walter is a shining example of embracing all that life presents us. Living life to the fullest and being hungry for whatever new and exciting challenges come our way. If we dare to reach towards our dreams, while we may fall short of our ultimate goals, we will have progressed further in life than we could have ever imagined. Amazing things happen when we see change as an opportunity.

Ryan’s books, including his latest, Hungry! Fuelling Your Best Game are available at his website. You can also follow Ryan on Twitter: @wryanwalter

Friday, September 9, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview with Steve Webb

On September 19th, 2011, NHL Alumni members Steve Webb and Pat LaFontaine will depart from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto for an epic journey that will see them bike 550 miles in 48 hours to raise money for two worthy charities. Leaving Toronto at approximately 11 am on the 19th, the former Islanders hope to arrive at the NHL Store in New York City two days later.

This is the third time that Webb has taken on the challenge of biking for charity and the first time that Hall of Famer and fellow New York Islanders Alumni member Pat LaFontaine will join him. The charities that will benefit from their extraordinary efforts are Webb’s W20 Foundation and LaFontaine’s Companions In Courage. The W20 Foundation encourages young athletes to learn about being socially responsible and take on active roles in their communities, while the Companions In Courage assists in building interactive playrooms in hospitals, as well as raising much-needed funds for Alzheimer’s and Dementia research.

In the first year of the charity bike ride, Webb led the way from his hometown of Peterborough, Ontario to Long Island, New York. Whereas, in year two, his team rode the opposite direction - from Long Island to Peterborough. By reducing the number of days for this year’s ride from eight and nine (in previous years) to two, he will have to rely on the same focus, determination and inner-strength that brought him from Peterborough to the National Hockey League.

“There are a lot of mind games when you are riding down the road and the wind picks up or the rain kicks in,” Webb said on the phone from his home in Long Island. “You are into your eighth, ninth, tenth hour out on the road and your mind does take over. I think the stronger you are mentally and the better the game plan you have, the more focused you can become to execute that game plan.”

“Initially, when you look at a map and you are thinking about your bike ride, most bikers go West to East, keeping their backs to the jet steam. From Buffalo to Albany is a big stretch of that West to East ride. I decided to go against that last year and we had four straight days of wind in the face, we also had rain and some snow. The conditions were brutal and I felt bad for the guys that had joined me because I made the decision to go that way. Had we gone the opposite direction it would have been smooth sailing, we would still be wet but it would have been quick.”

Attempting a 550 mile journey in 48 hours is certainly not an easy task; Webb and LaFontaine will be relying heavily on the support team they have assembled to assist them. As Webb explained in our conversation, “The support team is huge for us - we are not your typical long distance riders.”

Since it is year three for the charity bike ride and he has an idea of what to expect while out on the road, I asked Steve how much training goes into preparing for a trip of this magnitude?

“I should be doing a lot more, let’s put it that way,” he said with a laugh. “I just try to get out there and get some miles in. The thing about Long Island is that we don’t really have a ton of monster hills and that is one thing that is tough to train for mentally - the hills. I remember going out for a ride two years ago with Mike Komisarek and I was trying to take him to all the biggest hills that I could find. He was hammering up them and couldn’t get his heart rate up because he was in such good condition. He was just flying up these hills, while I was crawling up them!”

With Hall of Famer LaFontaine taking part in the ride for the first time, I also had to ask Steve - Does Pat know what he has gotten himself into?

“It’s a trade off,” Steve answered. “I helped him coach his U16 team this year for eight months and he gives me three days of his time for the ride. The problem is though, that my three days are a little more extreme than his eight months. I think it’s a good trade-off!”

Webb is incredibly tech savvy and uses Twitter, Facebook, blogs and his websites to help share his message of social responsibility and community involvement. During the 550 mile trip, friends and hockey fans can help Steve and Pat’s foundations by making donations online (the information to make a donation at their websites is listed below) and for the first time, supporters will be able to follow the ride online and send messages of encouragement.

“I have been testing out this new app that actually tracks where I am,” Steve explained. “You can see exactly where I am on my ride and if you wake up at 2am and send me a tweet (@SteveWebb20) or a Facebook message, it will stop the music I am listening to and read the message or the tweet to me and tell me who it is from. For motivational purposes, it’s awesome!”

“To have people be able to chime in and send along their encouragement during this 48 hour period is great. We are definitely going to need some assistance and that extra motivation. When it is four in the morning and you are biking in the dark and thinking ‘what have I gotten myself into’, it is nice to have that inspiration. It’s a cool way for people to interact with the ride.”

While a tremendous amount of money is raised each year by numerous charitable golf tournaments, to be noticed and offer a little variety, sometimes you have to think outside the box. Here in Ottawa for example, the city that I call home, Ottawa Senators defenseman Matt Carkner held a car rally and scavenger hunt this summer to raise money for a hospital in his hometown of Winchester, Ontario. The small town of 3,000 people raised over $50,000 for the hospital. With the 48-hour bike ride, Webb has certainly found an innovative way to engage hockey fans and help raise money and awareness about the W20 Foundation.

“You are always trying to do something different because there are a lot of golf tournaments out there,” said Webb. “On Long Island, we have some great alumni guys here that have their own tournaments and there are the other NHL teams within forty or fifty miles that have similar events too. The hockey fans in the New York area have a pretty good choice of golf outings and there are a lot of the same people coming out to support the events. You want to be a little creative by doing something different - that’s how we came up with the bike ride.”

“It takes some time for people to understand what you are doing; to see that you are actually executing what you say you are going to do. Then they start believing in you and believing in the mission. This year we have ramped things up dramatically - we have a lot of people saying we are crazy! Even really avid bikers are saying we are crazy, but Pat and I really believe that we have assembled the right group of people and the right team to help us be successful.”

“Every year we try to raise our standards, grow the event and broaden the amount of attention it gets. Teaming up with Pat will bring a lot of awareness to the ride and the foundations. We don’t really have a set number for a fundraising goal, we would love to raise a good amount of money for our causes, but we know there are a lot of things going on in the world - we understand that. We just want to make sure we can do the best we can for the people we are trying to help.”

Inspired by others throughout his junior and professional career, Webb discovered the importance of being active in the communities he called home and hopes to inspire others in the same way. He is grateful for the support he has received, as well as the support that continues to help him achieve his goals in life. Using all that he has learned from being involved in athletics his entire life, he is leading by example, hoping to inspire others and get them involved in their communities.

“My message is to always be responsible for your choices and actions,” Webb said. “Be surrounded by the right people that will help you become a better person, a better player and a better athlete in general so that you can have long term success. One of the things that we really try to foster in young athletes is that belief in yourself - having goals and focusing on what you can achieve.”

“The W20 Foundation initially came about by supporting some local athletes that had an opportunity to go on to post-secondary education and needed some financial support in order to make their dreams come true. We were able to sustain that for a few years but I think that over time, we were able to see that was a very microcosmic focus. We wanted to branch out and start to look around for ways to use technology to really foster how to give back to your community.”

“We have started a project called Team Up 4 Community and what we are doing is building a website where people can actually post what their team has done in the community. We want to show that by being in athletics, it gives you great principals and really good ties to your community. I hope that other organizations will see what people are up to and that will inspire them to ask themselves, how can we give back to the community? What can we do to make a difference?”

Athletes at all levels, whether they are professional or amateur, are donating their time and energy every day to help make a difference. Whether it is visiting schools, visiting hospitals or helping to raise funds for charities, spending a few hours or taking an entire day to get involved and help their local community can make a tremendous difference. It not only a benefit to those that receive the assistance, it also benefits the young athletes themselves.

“You always want to take the time to recognize the community that you actually play in as a young athlete and give back. There are people working hard to make sure that everything is prepared and ready for the athletes to get the best experience from youth sports as possible, by getting the fields ready, by being at the rinks and so forth. The taxpayers that are paying for it may not have kids involved in sport or they may be older and their kids are done playing sports. The idea is for the kids and the families that are utilizing the facilities to take some time and gets hands on; engage themselves in helping the community.”

“We don’t see a lot of these things at the forefront in the news or on the radio, but we want to show these athletes as examples of how important it is to do something great for someone else. For kids to grow up and understand that part of being an athlete is doing something great for your community, then that is a great message to hear!”

Leading by example, having focus and determination, helping others and being involved in your community - these are tremendously inspiring messages for anyone to hear, whether you are young athlete or not.

To make a donation or learn more about Steve’s W20 Foundation and Pat’s Companions In Courage Foundation, please visit their websites.

The W20 Foundation: www.w20foundation.org
Companions In Courage: www.cic16.org
Follow Steve on Twitter: @SteveWebb20

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

NHL Alumni Interview with Colin Patterson

Looking back at the Calgary Flames’ rosters during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, it could be
argued that the Stanley Cup would have found a permanent home in Calgary year after year if not for the Edmonton Oilers teams of that era. When speaking with several members of the Flames 1989 Stanley Cup winning team for various NHL Alumni articles, one player that is commonly mentioned as a key contributor to the team’s success and Stanley Cup victory is Colin Patterson.

A veteran of 504 NHL games, the Rexdale, Ontario native entered the league during the 1983-84 season and was an outstanding left winger that excelled as a defensive specialist. Throughout his career, he was relied upon to shutdown the opposition’s top forwards on a nightly basis. Like many Canadians, Patterson grew up loving the game and watching Hockey Night in Canada. While attending Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, he was discovered by a scout and soon found himself in the NHL as a valuable member of the Calgary Flames. While hockey fans celebrate every goal that is scored, there is an art to being a defensive specialist and Patterson was a master.

“That was my role in the NHL,” Patterson said on the phone from Calgary. “If I didn’t want to play that role then I probably wasn’t going to play in the league. It was a role that actually suited me pretty well. Naturally, you would love to score more goals but my job was preventing them and that allowed our guys to score.”

During his ten seasons in the NHL, Patterson’s Flames captured the Stanley Cup in a hard-fought six game series against the Montreal Canadiens in 1989. It was the second time the two organizations had battled for the historic trophy, with Montreal winning the first time around in 1986. After a gruelling regular season schedule and knowing that they had lost to the Canadiens once before, I asked Colin if there is a way to describe the feeling when the final buzzer sounds and the realization sets in - you are a Stanley Cup Champion.

“You know what, there is a great commercial about that,” he said. “Where guys are being asked what it is like to win the Cup and they can’t really answer because of the exhilaration of the moment. When I look back at the end of our game in the 1989 Final, there was a face-off in the Montreal zone and we were up 4-2. I think there was only about ten seconds left and Terry Crisp was calling me over while I was on the ice. I was thinking, ‘I don’t think things are going to go that badly that they are going to get down the ice to score a goal, line up and score again’ but I went over to hear him out. What he wanted was for me to get the puck for him after the game!”

“When we won, there was that moment of relief for us. We had been to the Finals before against Montreal and didn’t win. We had a top team for a few years and didn’t get back to the Stanley Cup Final. There was a lot of pressure, so it was a relief to win. It really is a grind to get to the Final. We played twenty-two games to win the Cup. That’s a lot of hockey when you add in the 82-game schedule and the pre-season. You play a lot of games to get to the end.”

The Stanley Cup win in 1989 took on a special significance for the franchise in the months that followed. Their friend and captain, Lanny McDonald, announced his retirement and had the rare opportunity to walk away from the game as a Champion.

“Winning the Cup was a great moment for all of us, as a team,” Patterson reminisced. “For Lanny though - what a great way to finish a career! At the time, we didn’t know he was going to retire but we had a feeling that if we won he would be.”

The transition to life after hockey can be difficult and it can often depend on the circumstances that lead to the decision to retire. Patterson retired from the league at the end of the 1992-1993 season. After the success in Calgary, he finished his NHL career with the Buffalo Sabres, but had to battle through injuries in those final campaigns.

“I didn’t find it as difficult as others, but when it hits, it hits home. I had the good fortune of going to Europe to play hockey for a year and probably could have gone back, so it really was my decision to decide to shut it down and move on to another job.”

“The big thing that you miss is the camaraderie, being around the guys and that routine of being a hockey player too - I used to love the afternoon naps before a game,” he said with a laugh.

Along with being an active member of the Calgary Flames Alumni, Patterson serves as the Vice-Chairman of the NHL Alumni Association. With a career in the business world, as well as helping to organize and attending alumni events, it can be difficult to find a balance and have time for it all.

“Typically, the people that you work for are very understanding. The companies that I have worked for since I have retired see how important the Alumni is to me. They also see the benefits to the company as well, so they have been very open and very supportive of my work.”

The NHL Alumni members work tirelessly to assist numerous charities, but that is not the sole mission of the organization. There are several programs available for recently retired players and long-time alumni members who may be in need of assistance. The Alumni Association also takes their responsibility as the guardians of the game very seriously, ensuring that the game they love continues to flourish at all levels. There is also the added bonus of getting together again, sharing stories and building new friendships.

“That’s the beauty of the NHL Alumni Association,” Patterson said. “It’s about helping guys transition to a new career after the game, while at the same time, promoting the game itself. It is also about looking after our former players and making sure that we are carrying on with our charitable endeavours. We have a great Calgary Flames Alumni too, so I am very fortunate. We do lots of things in Calgary with our local alumni.”

“When you go to the alumni events, it’s great because you see a ton of guys that you played against that you sort of know but you get to know them on a different level. Plus, meeting the guys that pioneered the game - it is because of them that I was able to play. I could listen to those guys forever!”

Since 2008, Patterson has worked with Just-In Case Fire Ltd, a company that designs, manufactures and distributes fire suppression systems under the brand name Fire Caddy. A friend’s brother invented the equipment and brought the product through the certification process. When Colin moved on from his previous job, he saw the immediate need for the equipment and took on an active role with the company. There are many applications for the Fire Caddy products - they can be used in homes, motor homes, farms, construction sites, at marinas and on boats. The products have also been used effectively to help suppress wildfires.

In preparing for my conversation with Colin about the Fire Caddy products, I realized that most people, including myself, are not as prepared to deal with a fire as we think we are. The various Fire Caddy products can be used from a safe distance and the goal of the company is to help bridge the gap in response time, when lives are most at risk.

“Most people are unprepared for a fire and that is what we are trying to get through to the public - bridging the gap between the fire extinguisher and the fire truck,
Patterson said about Fire Caddy’s mission. “They have done a great job with building supplies and non-flammable, flame resistant materials, but it is also the products within our homes that burn at a much greater heat now than they ever did. It is all about life safety and getting people out of buildings. It’s not about trying to become fire fighters, because we do not want that. What we want is to enable people to get out of buildings safely, so that when the fire fighters do arrive they don’t have to go in and risk their lives to save someone.

“We have a residential unit now, with a hose station or stations, that can go anywhere in your house. It can give people up to three minutes of fire-fighting time to evacuate and get out safely. There is a company called Albi Homes here in Calgary that is going to start putting our products in their new homes.

“The market in Canada and North America is very good but our products also have a great appeal internationally because they don’t have the infrastructure and the fire departments that we do. They don’t have the luxury of picking up the phone and calling 911 for help. In some areas that we work with, the people say, ‘we have a fire department but they might not show up.

During a fire, the water used to extinguish the blaze can actually cause a great deal of the damage to the home. The fire suppression systems designed for the Fire Caddy products consist of biodegradable, environmentally friendly foam, a factor that insurance companies should embrace - less damage is a good thing. However, Patterson explained that being recognized by the insurance industry is a difficult process and there is a long way to go on that front. In the meantime, the company continues to develop new products and discover additional avenues for distribution; they have witnessed a steady growth. The company has found success in the markets outside of Canada and Colin discussed a few examples of how their products have benefited other countries.

“One of our biggest customers is the country of Nigeria and they use our equipment for many different applications,” he explained. “One of the methods is using it to protect their cell phone towers - in case of fire our foam takes away the heat, which protects the towers from further damage. Another circumstance in Nigeria they are looking at is protecting their banks. It’s quite interesting to see the different uses.”

“Our products are also used by the Special Forces in Bahrain, using it to put out tire fires. They have some youth gangs that set tire fires, almost on a nightly basis. They would run into the problem that the Special Forces vehicle would arrive and be unable to put out the fire, so they would call the fire department. In the meantime, gangs are shooting stuff at the Special Forces soldiers. Now they are able to put out the fires themselves.”

One of the goals for the company is to see their products available in retail outlets, but as is the case with any new retail items, timing is very important when entering that market.

“We think there is an opportunity but it will probably be further down the road. We have a little unit that can attach to your garden hose that shoots out fire-fighting foam and water - you would be able to put out barbeque or backyard fires. To get into retail stores, you need someone that sees what you are doing, believes in what you are doing and wants to be an agent of change.

The line of Fire Caddy products not only help save lives and limit the damage to property, Patterson said that it was also designed with the environment in mind as well.

“There are two sides to the environmental work for us. On one side, the foam is environmentally friendly; it is biodegradable, non-toxic and has US Forestry approval. The other side is the amount of water that is saved, which is also great for the environment. In Canada, we typically dont appreciate the conservation of water because we have so much, but when you are putting out a bonfire in your backyard or a campfire and you think about how much water you pour on it; all of a sudden you are helping the environment by cutting that usage down.

It is always fascinating to speak with NHL Alumni members; seeing how they apply the same focus, drive and determination that brought them to the NHL into the next chapter of their life. For Colin Patterson, the same qualities that made him a key contributor on the Calgary Flames and ultimately a Stanley Cup Champion, have helped make Fire Caddy’s life saving products a success as well.