By Will MacLaren
Rick Bowness has seen more in hockey than many people witness in life. Coach a team to the Stanley Cup final (last year’s Dallas Stars)?
Lead one of the worst teams of all time through a laborious expansion season (the 1992-93 Ottawa Senators)?
Not surprisingly, a person who has resided on such complete opposite ends of the game’s spectrum proves rather unshakable. Except if you start talking about the folks who come together to help him put kids on the ice in the part of the world he’s called home for nearly seven decades. At this, he’s liable to choke up.
In the summer of 2000, Bow-ness had an idea. After attending a celebrity golf tournament in the area, the native of Moncton, N.B., called upon fellow Maritimers Tony Currie, best known for his days with the St. Louis Blues in the early 1980s, Montreal Canadiens 1986 Stan-ley Cup champion Mike McPhee and 1970s Maple Leafs star Errol Thompson. The crew put their heads together and decided to come up with an event that would promote and help the good people of the Mari-times.
It would feature golf and celebrities. Everything beyond that, however, would be unique in virtually every way.
“We knew there were many people throughout the Maritimes who couldn’t afford to have their child play hockey,” Bowness said. “We wanted to provide the assistance they needed.”
They sought out help from every corner, from current players and former pros to referees and broadcasters. Anyone who had an association with the NHL was called upon.
Thus, Maritime NHLers for Kids was born. It survives and thrives to this day in large part due to a number of guiding principles that sets it apart from every other tournament of its kind in Canada. Beyond the focus on those with direct ties to the area, the event is mobile, rotating among several towns throughout Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island each year.
There’s an interactive component that sees local kids, typically in the under-12 to un-der-14 age ranges, recruited to take part in a pre-golf Q&A session with the celebrities before hitting the course as “caddies.” This leads to a rule that’s otherwise unheard of when discussing events of this ilk. “We didn’t want any alcohol on the golf course,” Bowness said. “We wanted these kids to come out and have a positive experience while spending the day with us. The day became all about the kids, not the participants.”
It was a potentially risky maneuver to incorporate such a combination of moving parts and unconventional wisdom. But with more than two decades of sustained popularity in the rearview mirror, it’s clear that these fundamental aspects have only contributed to the event’s success.
Funds are generated through the purchase of four-man teams, typically 30 to 36 groups per year, as well as a gala and silent auction the night before the groups hit the links. Over the past 21 years, the event has directed millions of dollars toward the hockey-playing youth of the region. Additionally, every year the host minor hockey association is gifted 25 full sets of new hockey equipment, courtesy of the NHLPA’s Goals and Dreams program.
Even with last year’s event postponed because of COVID-19 (the 2021 event is in peril as well), it hasn’t stopped major sponsors from stepping up to maintain an annual donation.
Leon Dugas was the president of the Clare-Digby Minor Hockey Association when Mari-time NHLers for Kids rolled into his community in 2018. As a promoter of the game at the grassroots level, his appreciation for the event, particularly the up-close access given to the young athletes in his community, couldn’t be greater. “The people from around here get excited because there are big NHL names coming to town,” Dugas said.
“It’s a good opportunity to have (celebrities) meet with the kids, bond with them and have fun on the golf course. It’s a kid-driven event. That’s the big bonus. It gets those kids excited.”
As for the new gear his association received in the wake of the event – among the more than 5,500 sets distributed throughout the three provinces since Maritime NHLers for Kids’ inception – Dugas’ association used it to start a new program for female hockey. They were able to dress those kids with the gear they received and create a development program.
Dugas says the initiative saw a growth of 25 new female players who joined the program. “Once they’re hooked on the game,” he said, “they’re hooked on the game.”
No event of its kind can remain relevant for this long without the right mix of people. There are those who have been around since Day 1, like Bow-ness and former NHLer Forbes Kennedy, the 85-year-old who’s a legend in local hockey circles and has yet to miss a year. But that sort of loyalty stretches beyond the faces of the event. “We have a significant core that’s been with us for many years on the planning committee and on event day,” said event chair Chris Larsen. “On the team front, we have a number of groups that follow us from town to town. They’ve played with us for 10 to 15 years.”
If there’s one thing Maritime NHLers for Kids prides itself on even more than its stabilizing factors, it might be its ability to reinvent itself.
For every Rick Bowness, Mike McPhee or Forbes Kennedy who hits the links each summer, there’s a new generation of celebrities, including, in recent years, Brad Marchand, Ryan Graves and Matthew Highmore, among others, who keep the legacy of the event alive. “We’ve had the great for-tune of a very solid volunteer base that’s regenerating itself after this amount of time,” Larsen said. “It’s like changing in the offensive zone. We’ve got guys like Graves that have really embraced the event.”
Maintaining the longstanding tradition is one thing, but at the same time, it’s not just as simple as bringing a bunch of players together on a golf course. What, at its core, drives this initiative? Bowness, whose wife, Judy, and three children have also been deeply involved with the event for years, sums it up easily. “Everyone involved has the same belief,” he said. “We are all very fortunate to have the lifestyle we lead, and it’s very important to give back to the community.”
And by everyone, he means just that. The event relies on upward of 200 volunteers annually. Beyond the celebrities, just the mere thought of the teamwork involved takes on a deep meaning for the man who’s spent nearly 3,000 games helping steer the fortunes of various NHL teams. “To see the passion and the following we have from the volunteers and the sponsors that make this thing go, it’s so rewarding,” Bowness said. “And we know we’re putting kids on the ice. It gets emotional.”
It also gets them playing.