The impact of Mark Messier’s visit to Fort McMurray went well beyond a few hours spent at the college’s annual One on One Banquet.
Yes, the star power brought by the former Oilers captain, as well as 6 other NHL notables, was a driving force in propelling the Huskies Athletic Endowment past its $500,000 goal; but for Messier himself, the key was far broader.
His opportunity earlier in the day to meet and speak with local youth stood out perhaps even more so than the major fundraiser that night.
“For me, it’s listening to their stories,” said Messier. “Answering questions that they have about what it might take to continue further on. But in the end, it’s finding a passion, finding something you really love to do, and if you really love what you’re doing, it doesn’t become work.”
“Sports are, in a way, just a vehicle to create life lessons that carry on forever,” he added. “That’s always been my message to the children; you’ve got to become good civilians, good citizens first and foremost, and sports is a way to instill some of those great life lessons.”
Despite being an Edmonton native, the second-highest scoring NHLer doesn’t get as many opportunities to return to Alberta now that he works full time with the New York Rangers organization. To come all the way up north to Fort McMurray was a very rare experience, but one the “Moose” said was also eye-opening.
“Been a long time since I’ve been up here,” he recalled. “Actually, the early 80s was the last time – when the Oil Barons first came up here. Big changes. I had a great helicopter tour, and what an amazing experience that was.”
Once back on the ground, Messier saw his visit with local groups as an opportunity to mimic similar experiences he was privileged with as a young man.
“I remember after the ’72 [Summit] Series – we played another series against the Russians in ’74, and my father took me down to the banquet that they had for the players in Edmonton,” he recalled. “That had a big impact on me.”
“I used to go to the Oiler games; but seeing the guys up close and personal was a big thrill, so I know the impact that professional players, myself included, have when we meet these kids.”
Those meetings provide an opportunity to help youth – but so too did the One on One Banquet, whose beneficiary, the Huskies Endowment Fund, can now help more student-athletes than ever before pursue their academic and athletic goals simultaneously.
“I don’t do a lot of this,” said Messier. “But I like to do it when the initiative is for kids – whether it’s in building new arenas or facilities, or something that the kids of the community can really benefit from.”
“I don’t take it lightly, and hopefully we can have some kind of impact on them as they get older.”
The event came not long after the latest in a laundry list of honours for the six-time Stanley Cup champion, including his induction into the Order of Canada.
“That was quite humbling. Coming up as a young Canadian kid playing hockey, wanting to play in the NHL, seeing Hockey Night in Canada with the original six teams… when you’re growing up you’re not looking at getting into the Hall of Fame or the Order of Canada!”
Quite humbling too must have been the gentle ribbing provided by his co-stars at the night’s Hot Stove event, which included ex-Calgary Flames Joel Otto, Jim Peplinski, and Theo Fleury, former Oiler teammates Dave Lumley and Glenn Anderson, and host Kelly Chase.
“I’ve been to a few of these dinners – sometimes the keynote speaker can get a little long-winded,” said Messier in expressing his fondness for the Hot Stove format.
Once the casual yet insightful conversation was finished, Messier helped to personally propel Keyano’s endowment fund well past its goal by offering the audience a rare opportunity; a trip to his personal villa in the Bahamas. As the bidding soared past $40,000, the former NHLer himself seemed taken aback at the enthusiasm of the Fort McMurray crowd. By the time it began to hang at $42,500, he had decided to offer two trips at that price to the two top bidders, raising $85,000 for local college athletics in a matter of minutes.
Not only was Fort McMurray provided with an experience of a lifetime, for both banquet attendees and local youth who got to meet an NHL legend, but local athletics may have been given the very boost it needs to make the Keyano Huskies true national powerhouses across all sports.
Mission accomplished, no doubt.