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.