Homelessness has actually hit close to home for ex-NHL sniper Wayne Babych, so much so that he vowed to find a way to help out.
Naturally, hockey provided the in.
Babych is one of the vocal ambassadors for a charitable organization called Hockey Helps The Homeless, which raises not just much-needed funds for agencies that provide services to Canada’s homeless population but also awareness about the critical social issue.
In the Winnipeg area alone, more than 1,500 people are estimated to be homeless on any given night.
Babych isn’t just talking the talk; he’s skating the skate, as it were.
The 60-year-old from Edmonton, who now calls the Manitoba capital home, is one of dozens of former NHLers and Olympians who hit the ice with beer-leaguers and ankle-benders in tournaments across the country. He and his younger brother, former Jets 1.0 blue-liner Dave Babych, will participate in the first 10-team HHTH tournament to be staged in Winnipeg later this year.
The all-day event is set for Friday, Dec. 6 at Seven Oaks Arena.
"I’m so excited to be a part of this. We’ve had some guys from when I played where they’ve become homeless," said Wayne. "I drive through the city now and I look at people and I’ve never had an avenue of how I could help. I see people standing and asking for money at the corners. I do what I can. But this gives me an opportunity to help out the way I can.
"Hockey was my life, and having Ryan (Baillee) and his group coming here, I’m so glad to be part of this. I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to do everything to get into shape for this."
Similar pro-am tournaments have been held in cities across Canada for about 15 years, said Baillee, the HHTH national executive director.
Funds raised locally from the Winnipeg tournament will be directed to three agencies in the city that help combat homelessness: RAY (Resource Assistance for Youth), Red Road Lodge and Willow Place.
Baillee said a large volunteer group is thrilled to be hosting the Winnipeg tournament, adding sponsors have stepped up to support all 10 teams.
"It’s incredibly important. This is a rabid hockey community," he said. "To be sold out for a December event in May — 10 teams in — is just a testament to what goes on here. We know there’s a need for funding for the homeless and at-risk. So, to be able to leverage the great game of hockey in this community for the great work (those agencies) are doing, it’s a dream."
The tournament is open to anyone, regardless of skill. The only prerequisite is an ability to raise cash. Individuals must raise a minimum of $500 to play on a team.
Each squad will have 15 players and will be joined by a celebrity — either an NHL alumnus or female Olympian. Teams will play three mini-games, all at the new rink on Kingsbury Avenue.
The night before, the ringers will be divided up by way of a draft. The list of celebrity participants hasn’t been finalized, although most will have local ties.
Dave Babych was drafted by the Jets in 1980 and played in Winnipeg for parts of six seasons. He still has strong ties to the city, visiting three or four times a year, and is thrilled to be part of the HHTH initiative.
"I really enjoy this community. When Ryan asked me to co-host with Wayne, how do you say no? It was an automatic," he said. "I live in North Vancouver and I think I’ve played in the tournament there for 10 years, and every year, I don’t know how it happens, but it just gets better and better, and more money’s raised.
"We have the easy part. We just show up and play. Of course, we believe in what it’s all about. Hopefully, we entertain. We might not entertain on the ice, but in the dressing room and after because some of our skills... we think we’re going fast but we know that’s not true."
Since the mid-2000s, the tournaments have raised in excess of $16 million for agencies that offer things such as emergency shelter, transitional housing and mentorship programs.
For more information, visit hockeyhelpsthehomeless.com.
Assistant sports editor
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