Game On! (TV Week magazine)

Game On!

In a season without hockey, NHL players lace up the blades to hit the ice alongside Vancouver entertainers and media personalities in the annual Sea to Sky Charity Challenge

TV Week magazine, February 19-25, 2005

Fret not, hockey fans; relief is on the way. NHL players are suiting up and coming to an ice rink near you – that is, if you’re within driving distance of Vancouver or Whistler. Sure, some of the players aren’t necessarily active anymore, but then again, who is? Plus, they’ll be skating alongside musicians and media folks. But hockey’s hockey, right?

So it’s game on at next weekend’s Re/Max Sea to Sky Hockey Challenge. The two-game celebrity hockey series, held at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver on February 26, and at the Meadow Park Sports Centre in Whistler the following day, will not only provide some much-needed action to hockey-starved fans, but also support a good cause: the development of Canada’s top amateur athletes.

Funds raised from the event will go towards the PacificSport PodiumFund, which assists our country’s Olympic medal hopefuls in being the best they can be as they enter the international arena, by providing financial support for such needs as special equipment, training and travel expenses – all of which will become increasingly important as we count down to our very own 2010 Winter Olympics.

The two Sea to Sky games sandwich what is billed as the Puck Bunny Charity Ball at the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre on the night of February 26, where sports paraphernalia, vacations and dinners will be auctioned off and fans will get to mix with hockey legends to the soundtrack of a jam session featuring musicians such as Barney Bentall, Matt Johnson from 54-40, and Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy.

“There are going to be lots of reasons to come besides an entertaining hockey game,” says former Vancouver Canucks boss Brian Burke, who has selected a team that will take on a squad put together by current Canucks GM Dave Nonis.

With athletes like Jyrki Lumme, the Courtnall brothers, Darcy Rota and Ryan Walter, Nonis has assembled a potent roster to go up against Burke’s team of Cliff Ronning, Ray Ferraro, Kevin Lowe, Steve Tambellini, Doug Risebrough and Richard Brodeur. And at the coaching helm is NHL legend Howie Meeker. But Burke isn’t intimidated.

“It’s kind of unfair,” he says, tongue planted firmly in cheek. “Because it’s me against Dave Nonis – this guy’s never won a game as a general manager.”

(Nonis, of course, took over from Burke after last season, and given the NHL lockout, hasn’t had the opportunity to do much of anything except a lot of office work.)

So without the NHL with which to busy themselves, Nonis and Burke are relishing the chance to put together any kind of team. And they’re thankful they live in a city that places such a high premium on the sport they love.

“Living in Canada is a great thing, and living in Vancouver, I think it’s the best place to live in North America,” says Burke, who is still looking to get back in the NHL game. “The passion for hockey does allow you to do more stuff charitably than you could in other places. If I were GM now in some of the U.S. markets, I wouldn’t have any profile; I wouldn’t be able to raise any money. It’s different here.

As much as they both love the hockey side of the Sea to Sky Challenge, they both very much believe in the cause.

“People have to realize that for our elite athletes to improve and to be competitive that a lot of money and time goes into it,” says Nonis. “It’s important for our country that we continue to support those people.”

Some would debate whether it really is important, in the grand scheme of things, for jocks to get medals in the Olympics. What difference does it really make?

Says Burke: “There’s a stopwatch at every track meet for a reason. There’s a scoreboard at every hockey rink for a reason. So I think results are critically important.”

While this event features hockey players, Burke is quick to point out that they are not the recipients of the assistance.

“Obviously it’s different for NHL players and NBA players,” he says, “but for individual sports, if you’re a figure skater or a cross-country skier, you’re not properly subsidized by the government, in my opinion. And the goal of this group is to make sure that these athletes are properly funded. If the government’s not in the position to do it, or have the inclination to do it, then we’re going to try and help.”

It’s not only professional hockey players helping out in the cause. Nonis’s squad features such talent as JACK-FM’s Willy Percy, Jason Priestley, Jackson Davies, Craig Northey of The Odds and Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell, who will be between the pipes, facing legendary net minder King Richard Brodeur down at the other end. Hmm, who has the advantage in goal?

“Put it this way,” says Nonis. “I’m not going to say anything negative about [Campbell] because he’s our goaltender – but we’re going to have to play good team defence.”

Burke’s celebrities include country crooner Aaron Pritchett, former BC Lions hero Lui Passaglia, and Global personalities Jay Janower and Steve Darling, about whom the ever-diplomatic Burke says, “Well, they kind of made me take him because he’s instrumental in promoting this thing. He and Jay Janower have been terrific. They were wonderful last year promoting it and they played in it and they’re both very popular guys. So I kinda got stuck with them. I like his attitude, so I’m not totally disappointed. But his skill level leaves something to be desired.”

To top it all off, the two executives will be joining in the fun on ice. And more NHLers and celebrities will be announced in the days leading up to the event. But as entertaining a game as this will be, hockey fans are still chomping at the bit for their beloved Canucks to return to the ice. But even insiders like Nonis and Burke know no more than the rest of us as to when that might be.

“The media knows more about this than we do,” says Nonis. “We’re sitting here as a club waiting to play. We’re ready to play and hoping that the [Players Association] and the league can reach some type of agreement. There’s no information that I can provide, that’s for sure.”

The no-nonsense Burke doesn’t have any more information than Nonis, but he does know one thing: “They’re clearly running out of time. The flexibility has to enter into this on both sides. So far, neither side’s been flexible. They both have to move if they’re going to make a deal… they’ve both taken positions that they are ultimately not going to be able to prevail. Neither side is going to get what they want here. They’re both going to have to move. If I had to bet money one way or the other, I’d bet that we’re not going to play.”

Which makes the Sea to Sky Challenge about as close as you’re going to get to NHL action for a long time – while helping to increase the chances that an amateur athlete will hear “O Canada” being played at the medal ceremony of the next Olympic Games.