"I thought I was being Punk’d like that MTV show."
-- Tom Barnett on learning he was the inaugural winner of the Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Leadership Award
"He told me I represent his mission for what youth hockey needs to be about," said the resplendent Barnett before Game 3 at Mellon Arena. "It is amazing."
In fact, when Barnett got the call about the honor last Friday – complete with an invite to Game 3 – he thought it was a put-on: "I thought I was being Punk’d like that MTV show."
Quite the contrary. Barnett spent the day with Messier and met a rosterful of NHL celebrities, all thanks to his dedication to “keeping the game of hockey in perspective” for kids in the Buffalo region. Barnett started the Buffalo Shamrocks organization in 2001 with 30 kids and declared the ‘Rocks season as October through, of course, St. Patrick’s Day.
"Hockey is a winter sport," said Barnett. "We want kids to do other things in the off-season, like ride a bike, play baseball or take walks with your family."
Messier concurred: He said playing out-of-town tournaments and scheduling games well into spring and even summer is “damaging family structure in the U.S. and Canada.” The six-time Stanley Cup champion for the Oilers and Rangers added that he played soccer, baseball, football and lacrosse
"A young player from Pittsburgh shouldn’t have to travel to Boston to play on a weekend," said Messier. "I don’t remember ever leaving Edmonton when I played youth hockey."
Barnett said his No. 1 rule for the Buffalo Shamrocks — which has expanded to more than 300 players and 40 coaches in eight year — is “it had better be fun.” Next is team play, which his youth hockey org amplifies with a unique off-season program. All Shamrocks players and coaches participate in a Buffalo Zoo garden project to plant, weed and harvest vegetables which are then — “this is the best part,” Barnett said — fed to the animals by the kids themselves.
"It encourages the team concept," Barnett said. "You are no longer the leading scorer or the skinny kid. You are teammates growing food for animals and learning how nature recycles itself."
Barnett was selected from more than 70 nominees in the U.S. and Canada. The inaugural Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Leadership Award is part of the Mark Messier Leadership Award presented by Bridgestone and in conjunction with the NHL and the NHL Players Association. Messier Leadership Award finalists Jerome Iginla, Zdeno Chara and Sidney Crosby were announced Tuesday, and the winner will be revealed at the NHL Awards June 18 in Las Vegas.