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Mark Napier on Toronto Hockey, Gordie Howe, and the Scotiabank Pro-Am in Support of Baycrest

While Mark Napier never had a chance to represent his hometown team, the rapid ascension of the Maple Leafs has definitely caught his (and the rest of Toronto’s) eye. “Typically at this time of year, they’d be talking about the Raptors or the Blue Jays, or TFC,” said the former NHLer. “But everybody’s talking about the Leafs! The buzz is back, the excitement is similar to the feeling in the early 2000’s when they were on those runs. Whether they win or lose, just to get there, and the adversity that they had to put up with… It shows a lot of character. It reminds me a bit of those early Oilers teams in 1981 and 1982. A great nucleus of kids, it’s going to be an exciting team for a long, long time.”

Certainly, we’re all sitting here on the edge of our seats, eager to see where this run, which is quickly shaping up to be a heck of an underdog story, will take the blue and white. But it’s far from the only hockey being played in this city right now, as Napier will happily tell you. In just a few short weeks, he’ll be one of a dozen former pros re-lacing their skates for the 12th Annual Scotiabank Pro-Am for Alzheimer’s™ in support of Baycrest, a cause that he’s been a part of since Day 1.

“Baycrest actually came to [the NHL Alumni Association] about the idea of this tournament, and we thought it was fabulous,” said Napier, who was Executive Director of the Association at the time. “The big cache was that Baycrest wanted to be the best tournament out there. I heard of a couple of tournaments that were pretty well run, and though, boy, if they could make it better than those, it would be really good.”

The tournament took it’s time to grow. In its first year, only sixteen teams paid to participate in the fundraiser, and with six weeks before puck drop, the plug was almost pulled on the whole thing. But it wasn’t, and it’s blossomed into the fundraising tournament that Napier and everyone else involved hoped it would be. “Almost $30 million later, I’m glad we continued with it. I think at one point, we had 59 teams in the tournament. It’s kinda settled back down, it seems we usually get about 30 or 40 teams now, and I think the retention rate is about 90%. In charity terms, that’s impressive.”

After planting a successful seed locally, the group decided to try to find more opportunity to combat Alzheimer’s across the country. Knowing that heading to Alberta in search of donations for a specific hospital in Toronto would be an uphill climb, it was decided that it would be best to find a way to create a parallel connection and reached the group out to Mr. Hockey himself to make it happen.

“We came up with the idea of doing the Gordie & Colleen Howe Fund for Alzheimer’s,” said Napier. “We approached Gordie and his family, and they backed it 100%. They thought it was just awesome.” Howe even made a point to be as active as possible in making sure things started off on the right foot.

“Whatever you’d ask Gordie, he’d do. He came out when we were approaching Calgary with it, and we had some of the new committee members that were going to be with it, and Gordie came out and just, the whole night, he was telling stories. He had everybody in stitches. After that, it was such an easy sell.” Both Gordie and Colleen had suffered through forms of dementia in the final years of their lives, which was part of the reason that Gordie was so eager to step up to help out following his wife’s death in 2009. For many of his final years, Howe was more than happy to be a vocal ambassador for the campaign. Those efforts seem to have rubbed off, as the tournament continues to have similar success out west.

Interestingly enough, the Pro-Am wasn’t Napier and Howe’s only connection. The two had also played against each other in the World Hockey Association in the 1970s, including in a game where Howe broke a prestigious milestone.

“I was 19 years old playing for the Birmingham Bulls,” Napier began, as he told the story of one of the most memorable nights of his early career. “Gordie was chasing his 1000th goal. There wasn’t usually a lot of press in Birmingham, Alabama, but he had gone two or three games without getting one, so the press box was full of reporters and, sure enough, in the first or second period, they get a powerplay, and Gordie got it. I was actually on the ice, killing the penalty, and I’m kinda thinking, I’m almost cheering for Gordie to score. But he scored against us, so it was a little bittersweet to see such a great man get his 1000th goal.”

That memorable moment happened in Napier’s second WHA season. Prior to that, the Bulls had been in Toronto, sharing Maple Leaf Gardens with the Leafs as the Toros. The two-time Stanley Cup champion was only there for their final season, but he felt it was a special experience to be a part of. “The NHL had [at the time] stopped drafting 18-year-olds, so Johnny Bassett took a chance and just signed me,” Napier said. “I had played with the Toronto Marlboros two years before that and we won the Memorial Cup in 1975, so I didn’t think I had a lot more to do in junior. By going to the Toros, it was kind of like playing in the minors if I had gone to the NHL, which I probably would’ve had to do.”

For him, the WHA provided him with pro-experience, a raise from the $75-per-week stipend he picked up from playing Junior Hockey, and it gave him a chance to play in a historic rink in front of his friends and family; something he always cherished even when playing for the rivals in Red. “Even when I went to Montreal a few years later, the Gardens was still around. To be able to come home with a pretty good Montreal Canadiens team at home against my team growing up, the Leafs, to play in front of friends and family with the Habs jersey on was pretty special also.”

Now, 541 points, two rings, a Memorial Cup, a WHA Rookie of the Year Trophy, a World Championship Bronze Medal, a tour in Italy, and a brief junior coaching career later, the hockey that gets him most excited is the annual weekend where he can use his still-present skills to raise money for a good cause. It’s a tournament that he always looks forward to, and he believes that those who give it a chance will find themselves hooked as well.

“From the first year, those who were a part of the tournament had so much fun in this one weekend, that a lot of them decided to start their own teams. It’s not inexpensive to do it, but it’s just a really fun weekend. There’s the draft party that’s just awesome, then I don’t know what other tournaments you’ll find that you get to spend two days with an NHL alumni, getting dressed in the room, telling stories, playing the game with them, and then going to have beer and chicken wings with them after the game. It’s not just like a golf tournament where you golf with them, and he’s gone. He’s part of your team for a minimum of three games. Our guys love it, so that makes it even better, and the participants love it, so if you’re sitting on the fence, you should come out.”

“The number one thing is that it’s such a great cause. Alzheimer’s has affected me, and it’s affected a lot of people. If we have a chance to do something about this awful disease, then that much better.”

For more information on the Scotiabank Pro-Am for Alzheimer’s™ and how you can take part, check out our previous post on the tournament or visit their official website at baycrestproam.ca. If you’re already convinced that this tournament is the right one for you, you can begin registering yourself or your team here.