Oh Canada

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I have expounded many times the joy my collection has brought, opening a world of exposure I never thought was possible. Watching our Canadian kids excel at the Pan Am Games can’t help but put a smile on my face, because of the small part we have played in getting some of our athletes there.

One Saturday morning a few years ago, I watched my friend’s daughter Rosie Maclennan win our only gold medal in trampoline at the 2012 Olympics in London. Welling up with pride like most Canadians watching that Saturday morning as the gold medal was placed around Rosie’s neck and the beaming smile exploding across her face, instantly made me want to help our athletes. Knowing a little of the plight our kids endure through lack of funding to stay competitive at the world level made me appreciate even more not only what Rosie just accomplished but the painstaking effort it took to even get there. It takes elite talent, grueling, intense training and unfortunately lots of money. A carded athlete gets roughly $1,500 a month from the Canadian government to pay rent, train and eat. The top athletes may have sponsors but its not always the case. These kids put their lives on hold for years to prepare and compete at a world-class level, delaying scholastics, careers, families, friends and anything not related to training for their sport.

After contacting Rosie’s father about hosting a fundraiser “In the Room” of the Ultimate Leafs Fan, to help with her training, John suggested I speak to a woman by the name of Jane Roos who runs a program for our Canadian Athletes called Canfund. Jane and her husband Conrad Leinemann both ex-Olympians started Canfund a number of years ago raising funding to support Canadian athletes in need of financial assistance. The athlete applies to the fund and can draw up to $6,000 twice a year if they meet a certain criteria to help support their training and living expenses.

I was a little skeptical at first because the thought originally was hosting an evening with Rosie present, selling 25 tickets at $500 each and the proceeds to her. I found out its not quite that easy so we met with Jane, John and Rosie at our place to strategize and also they could see the appeal of the collection to make the evening unique.

Jane is an energetic, passionate and tireless worker who strives to “level the playing field” allowing our athletes the opportunity to compete with the best in the world representing our country. We found out that 800 athletes were on the list in need of funding including Christine Sinclair, regarded the best woman’s soccer player in the world. Jane went on to explain that our “Room” if we were willing, could draw a very exclusive crowd and make a huge difference to a number of our kids with the significant funds we could raise in an evening.

Touring the collection, Rosie turned to Deb and myself and said,

“Mike and Deb, I am so grateful that you want to do this for me. My sport doesn’t get a lot of attention but since I won we are a bit now. There are athletes going to Sochi next year and they really need help, would you mind if we shared this money with them as well?”

It was all I could do to hold back the tears, looked at Deb and with my voice quivering said,

“Are we backing the right horse or what?”

After giving Rosie a hug it still hadn’t really sunk in that this elite athlete had offered to share money with other athletes she didn’t even know. Unlike the greedy athlete in the pro ranks such as Lebron James who stands for everything wrong with sports, only uses the word “we” when his team loses and “I” when they win.

At that moment I never felt prouder to be a Canadian and compelled to help further.

I would find that every Canadian Olympic hopeful I met had the same attitude as Rosie and some of these kids turned money away from Canfund to allow others to benefit from the help.

Deb and I have hosted two fundraisers for Canfund with full intention of making it three years in a row this fall to help prepare our kids for Rio in 2016.

Our first two events have netted to the athletes close to $250,000 and helped support over 35 athletes with funding. Did you know that as a competitive skier for Canada they are required to pay $18,000 to the ski federation? The unranked skier pays $28,000.

Volleyball players pay for their own balls. One young skier was paying in excess of $250 for her bags that contained her skis and equipment, every time she travelled to a competition around the world. By the way the airline charging this Canadian athlete was Air Canada. Rosie used the $6,000 from Canfund to fix her car so she could get to practice. I have countless stories along these lines that I’ve heard, not from the athlete but Jane and Conrad. The kids? They just move on and don’t let it cloud the focus.

One of the greatest honours I’ve ever experienced involved helping Conrad make the “call.” The “call” is the one all these young athletes hope they receive because it’s to inform them they have qualified for Canfund assistance.   I was warned that they don’t always reach the kids because they could be anywhere in the world training or competing.

Jayna Hefford has competed for Canada at five Olympic games in hockey, winning four gold’s and silver in the process, certainly one of the most decorated Olympians of all time and clearly a candidate for the Hockey Hall of Fame. We contacted her in Calgary one evening while she was headed to practice. To say she was floored by the call was an understatement. The first words our of her mouth after a heartfelt thank you were,

“Mike, I can’t thank you and Debra enough for what you are doing for all of us. It makes a difference and gives us all hope. If there is anything I can do to help in the future please call on me, I’ll be there.”

“Well Jayna there is something you can do for me and actually its part of the requirement, are you ready?”

“Name it Mike.”

“ When you win gold in Sochi, and you are back in Toronto, you must come to our place with your medal and have your picture taken with me in front of the Team Canada case in my room.”

Each athlete the response was the same, “How can I help?” or “What do you need from me to push this along and help others?”

We live in a very competitive world and sometimes the real values of life are lost on us all. There is something about the pure innocence of competing at a world-class level either as a participant or as a proud Canadian cheering those to victory that let us forget about the cruelty of life momentarily, getting caught up in the excitement of the competition. Is anything more gratifying than watching one of our athletes standing on a podium, tears streaming down their face, singing the words to our National Anthem while our flag rises for the world to see?

Or how about the athlete that hasn’t medaled but set not only a personal best but also a Canadian record in the event they competed in, with a smile from ear to ear, vowing to work harder, and the pride they feel representing our country?

With the PAN AM Games now over as you read this, ask yourself if the inconveniences weren’t so bad after all and how great was it to see Canada as a dominating force during the competition. Remember our athletes aren’t the ones to blame; all they did was compete and try to make us proud while they knocked heads with world-class competitors.

If you get the chance, look up one of the athletes on social media and engage them in a conversation. The positive energy these kids give off is contagious with the drive to succeed and their love of our country and the pride they feel representing us. There are no million-dollar contracts, personal services funding, ownership of a team or in most cases any sponsorship, and however these kids just find a way to survive.

Every time you give something back to a Canadian athlete you are changing a life, and that little extra may be the difference from standing at ground level or two feet higher on a podium.

Jayna Hefford went to Sochi and in dramatic fashion as we all remember Canada won gold in overtime.

The picture of Jayna and me, in front of the Team Canada case with her gold medal, is one of my treasured pieces.