A Night of Greatness

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Bullying is a despicable and cowardly act. I attended an event a few years ago hosted by the Canadian Safe School Networks to raise awareness and educate on the subject of bullying, outlining the effects it was having on our youth leading in numerous cases to fatal results.  One of the guests was Brian Burke formally of the Toronto Maple Leafs and now President of the Calgary Flames.  His involvement was to bring a stop to bullying and particularly to homophobic bullying. Burke’s son Brendan was gay and in November 2009 he came out advocating for tolerance and speaking out against homophobia in professional sports. A year later he was killed tragically in a car crash. His father made a commitment to carry on his son’s quest and aligned with CSSN to spread the word against homophobic bullying.  After listening to what was happening to these kids. I spoke to Brian and wanted to get involved.

We hosted the first event at our home in June 2014 and it was a roaring success. My collection was the setting, combined with guests Brian Burke, Dave Nonis, Dion Phanuef, John Shannon, Dave Poulin and Elisha Cuthbert. Rick Vaive and Steve Ludzik drove in from Niagara Falls just to support any way they could.

The media coverage was terrific and thrilled me to host the roundtable with this distinguished group that became the talk of the event (it made the cover of the Toronto Sun 3 days in a row).

When Brian and I discussed hosting this years 2nd Annual Night for Change, the concern was how on earth we could top the previous year.  We agreed we needed a headliner that would not only draw massive attention but also leverage the cause to new heights.

Knowing Brian and Wayne Gretzky were close friends, I threw out his name. Well after some deliberations, a Flames extended run in the playoffs, tight scheduling with the NHL awards and draft all within weeks of each other, Wayne was in and it was a go for June 8.   Our only problem was the short window of two and a half weeks to put it all together.

Wayne Gretzky is an athlete I’ve admired for many years thus the tribute to him in my collection with his own display case.   I’ve met him on a number of occasions and played golf a few times in charitable events but will never forgive him for what he’s done to the Leafs during his career.

The way this man carries himself not only on the ice but off as well, is a template every athlete should live by. Just think back to Salt Lake City during the 2002 Olympics and his passionate plea to all Canadians to pull together and keep faith in our guys when things were at there lowest, much like Phil Esposito’s rallying cry in 1972. Well as they say the rest was history and the gold medal was ours.

The pure mention of Gretzky’s name just resonates magic and why we sold 30 of the 60 tickets in less than 2 hours. The only reason we stopped at 30 was to allow everyone who attended last year, a chance to attend.

Brendan Shanahan and Paul Coffey immediately jumped on board and now with this legendary lineup the night was made. Allan Frew of Canadian rock band Glass Tiger offered to be the musical entertainment along with Ian Lake from the Mirvish production “Once”. The sponsors, the food and beverage, donations and auction items all came as a result of people wanting to make a difference, helping anyway they could. Our costs outside of a tent and some outside tables were next to nothing. To say Deb and I where completely overwhelmed by this outpouring of generosity would be an understatement.

The media was more than generous with their time and willing to provide us with as much coverage as needed to make our night successful.   I know the drawing power of our guests made this all possible but we in our small way now understand the demand they endure on a regular basis for a piece of their time.

Deb and I paced nervously (well she was organizing, I was pacing) most of the afternoon glaring menacingly at the sky praying for clear weather. The rain gods must have listened or more likely Wayne looked up and said,

“I don’t want to get wet tonight, go away.”

Our version of the “red carpet” was known as the “Ultimate Blue Carpet” complete with ropes, backdrop and John Gallagher along with Jim McKenny as greeting hosts.   The media used that as a backdrop and the expression on the guests faces entering this “Hollywood” like entrance was priceless.

When Wayne arrived I watched with fascination as he handled every question about this delicate subject with patience and class like only he could. It set the tone for what turned out to be an awesome evening with the highlight for me, giving Wayne a tour of my collection and the hockey panel I moderated. I’ve said to people all week that I don’t think my feet have touched the ground yet.

One of the joys I have with my collection is sharing it with people and particularly players, coaches or management involved in the game. It’s not because they are famous but rather it takes them back in time and immediately conjures up stories of their childhood. These guys were no different than the many who have recounted childhood stories touring the room. Paul Coffey shook his head in amazement and uttered the word, “unbelievable” when Gretzky looked at him in glowing excitement and said,

“Can you believe this place?”

Brendan Shanahan said growing up a Leafs fan but never playing for them but now in the organization was “inspired and motivated” walking around the room.

Brain Burke called it “awesome” and something every Leafs fan should experience comparing it to, “ Seeing the Vatican as a Catholic.”

Needless to say I’m very humbled but at the same time very proud of what my collection has become. I like to think of myself as a popular and a lovable guy thus why everyone wants to support us and come to our events.   I wish!

In our small way the good we can accomplish from our collection is very rewarding and gratifying but I would be remiss by not acknowledging the real drawing power of Brian, Wayne, Paul and Brendan. The message sent by the endorsement of these four has let the world know that homophobic bullying will not be tolerated. The unfortunate problem however is to deliver the message takes funding but with the response we have seen grow over the last two-years, there is a solution.

We will continue to fight the fight to put an end to this cause and hopefully the more people made aware of this unnecessary evil, the quicker it comes to an end and evenings like ours won’t be needed.

Next week I will talk about Gretzky’s tour of the “room” or,

“The Great One meets the Ultimate One.”