Bob Sweeney soaked up all the camaraderie, the goodwill, and the passion first-hand in Toronto two years ago during the Scotiabank Pro-Am Alzheimer’s Hockey Tournament, and thought, what a great concept.
A festive weekend gathering of National Hockey League alums, lacing up their skates in a tournament, former pros sharing the locker room, the bench, and the ice with recreational men’s league teams in a major fund-raiser.
The tourney, kicking off with a player draft of former NHL players, has generated $20 million-plus north of the border for the Gordie and Colleen Howe Fund, focusing on Alzheimer’s disease research. The Toronto venture, entering its eighth year, serves as the blueprint for pro-ams that are run in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver.
In his role as executive director of the Boston Bruins Foundation, Sweeney thought, why not Boston, or in this case, Marlborough?
The last weekend in April, the inaugural NHL Alumni Pro-Am will become a reality at the New England Sports Center’s six-rink facility, with the initial goal of raising $250,000 for the head-trauma unit at Boston Children’s Hospital.
The pro-am is a collaborative effort between the Bruins Foundation and the NHL Alumni Association, which opened up an office last fall at the Marlborough rink complex with former Philadelphia Flyer and Ottawa Senator Jason Zent serving as the point man.
“Toronto is such a hockey mecca, there were 48 teams, and probably 1,000 people at the draft, we thought it would be a great fit for Boston,” said Sweeney, a Boxborough native who spent the first six seasons of his NHL career working the pivot for the Black & Gold. “We’ve started it small, but so far, we are off to a great start.”
Plans call for 24 men’s teams (35-and-over) to be slotted in an alumni draft on April 26 based on their fund-raising efforts, earning the opportunity to skate alongside Hall of Famers Ray Bourque and Brian Leetch and familiar names like Terry O’Reilly, Rick Middleton, Tony Amonte, Mark Napier, and Sweeney, among others.
Choosing one charitable cause was a difficult decision, said Zent, “but concussions are really coming to the front burner, and it really resonates.
“For me, it’s about the children, and raising the awareness. I am excited that we can make a difference with kids, and not just hockey players.”
The Bruins have been impacted by concussions as much as any team in the NHL over the past decade. Both Patrice Bergeron and Nathan Horton suffered season-ending hits, while Marc Savard will likely never play again, “so this is near and dear to us,” said Sweeney.
Kim Jacobs, wife of Bruins principal Charlie Jacobs, serves on the board of trustees at Children’s Hospital and has had “a true passion for all of our charitable events,” said Sweeney.
Napier, executive director of the NHL Alumni Association, said it is important that the money raised stays in the community. “The setup in Boston is perfect,” he said, noting that he would like to see the model here serve as a template for events in New York and Philadelphia. “It’s a special thing, the former pros spend two and a half days with your team. The first day may be a bit awkward, but then you play the game, have beer and chicken wings, socialize, it’s such a classy tournament. There’s a real appeal to a lot of these guys, who would never have a chance to play with an ex-pro.”
Napier, a two-time Stanley Cup champion with the Canadiens and Oilers, takes delight in zipping a few passes that will “knock the stick right out of their hands.” Or, from his days as a speedy right-winger on the Montreal team that KO’d the Bruins in a memorable Game 7 in 1979, “sharing Don Cherry ‘too many men on the ice’ stories,” he added with a chuckle.
“We want to make this the No. 1 tournament in the world,” with Marlborough serving as host.
“We are kind of excited to be in the middle of it,” said NESC owner Larue Renfroe. “It’s a nice way to raise money for a worthy cause, and it brings the hockey community close togther.”