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Banding together for a cause

by Staff Writer / Vancouver Canucks
Hockey players and golf go together like the Hanson brothers and foil. Put another way, it doesn't take a tremendous amount of arm twisting to get a bunch of NHL players to come out and swing the sticks, especially in a stunning locale like Kelowna, in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley.

But the 20-plus players and celebrities didn't just come for the sun, the stunning vistas, and the Okanagan reds. OK, so maybe that was part of the reason they came. But they also came because three of their professional colleagues asked them to.

Tampa Bay Lightning goaltender Olaf Kolzig and former NHLers Byron Dafoe and Scott Mellanby got together several years ago to found Athletes Against Autism (AAA) after each had an affected child. In June, they held their third annual celebrity golf tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif. Those outings, combined with awareness nights throughout the North American sports world, have raised nearly $1 million for autism research, outreach, and awareness.

This year, the trio decided to expand their efforts in Canada. It was a natural fit given that the three founding members are all hockey players who were raised in the sport's native country. More importantly, autism -- the fastest growing developmental disorder in the world -- is every bit the problem, some would say "epidemic," that it is in the U.S. And while Canadian researchers have contributed greatly to the understanding of autism, support services in Canada for those affected by autism and their families remain well behind those of their southern neighbor.

Kelowna was the choice to host the inaugural Canadian event for a variety of reasons, perhaps most importantly because it is Dafoe's current hometown. The Okanagan Valley is also home to numerous NHL players in the offseason, and it doesn't take a visitor more than a few minutes to understand why. On the final approach by air, planes navigate parallel ridgelines and the huge Okanagan Lake before landing in Kelowna. LaGuardia, it is not.

Once on the ground, everywhere you look, you find water, mountains, and golf courses. Mix in an arid summer climate that offers high temperatures, lake breezes, and nary a drop of humidity, and it's a place that this visitor from stifling New York took an instant liking to.

Each time I've attended one of these gatherings, it has left me feeling both hopeful and depressed. Hopeful because I see the spirit of everyone touched by this puzzling disorder which impairs social development and can leave children locked in world of isolation. Having autism has been compared to being the only person in a crowded room that speaks a particular language, and desperately trying to get your needs met. For the parents and loved ones of those affected, it is the opposite. We share a common bond that we understand all too well. It involves therapists, trying school placements, complicated dietary restrictions, awkward behaviors, and the fear that our children will face a life-long struggle for understanding and acceptance. The worry that accompanies an autism diagnoses does not abate, no matter how much progress a child is able to make.

I admire the willingness of Kolzig, Mellanby, and Dafoe to take their struggles with autism public. As Mellanby likes to say at these gatherings, when his son Carter was first diagnosed a decade ago, the explanation of "autism" that he gave for some of Carter's public behaviors was met with puzzled looks. That doesn't happen so much anymore, because just about everyone at least knows someone who knows someone that has had autism touch their lives. That includes many of the other NHL players in attendance. Matt Pettinger of the Canucks came because he played with Kolzig in Washington, but also because he has a cousin with autism.

The event began with a dinner program and silent auction on Sunday evening, as some 200 guests listened to presentations from AAA's founding members and others in the autism community while bidding on items of hockey memorabilia and once-in-a-lifetime experience packages.

Monday morning, it was time to head to the Harvest Golf Club across town for the main event, a four-person team shamble tournament. Although this was my third time attending an AAA golf outing, it was the first time I would actually play. There's a very good reason for that: I am not a golfer. I last played a round nearly 10 years ago and despite a month of weekend outings to my local driving range, I was filled with a sense of panic as we entered the course grounds. Joining me in my foursome would be two friends from the NHL web community, Kevin Kinghorn of the Canucks and Mike Board of the Flames, but we did not know the identity of our celebrity fourth until we arrived. I had lobbied the event's organizer the night before to give us the worst golfer out of his celebrity stable, caring as I did far more about having someone to share my certain humiliation with than about doing well in the tournament. Mike and Kevin are both pretty serious golfers, and I spent much of the morning apologizing in advance for what I was sure would be a pretty tortured day on the course. My nerves were only slightly calmed after hitting a few balls on the range with a set of borrowed clubs that were a lot nicer than my own hand-me-down set.

Any sense of calm I was feeling quickly evaporated after I was asked to give my handicap ("as big as you'll give me") and after learning that our fourth was to be Blake Comeau, a young forward from the New York Islanders who lives locally and who plays the Harvest course regularly. I extended my apologies to him shortly after our introduction, but my playing partners were in the spirit of the event. We were out on the course for a good cause, on a beautiful day, and as much as I love my job, I have to admit this was a little nicer than the typical Monday morning diet of meetings and emails.

Comeau invited me to hit our foursome's first shot, an invitation I would have loved to have declined, particularly after taking a huge divot (with my driver no less) on my one practice swing. But I repeated to myself the same message I had given Blake a few minutes before. There's only one reason I was willing to come out here and embarrass myself on a golf course, and that was because the cause is so important to me. I took a few deep breaths and swung my oversize driver. Surprise! -- I had managed decent shot in the relative vicinity of the fairway. With that one swing, all my nerves dissipated and I was able to relax and enjoy the incredible setting and the knowledge that we were helping to raise a lot of money for a great cause. I even managed to hit a nice drive or two while Kevin had his camera rolling.

We didn't win any of the boats or cars that were available for a hole-in-one. We didn't take home any of the 50/50 cash for long putts or straight drives. Still, the round was a lot of fun, but the real treat came afterwards. As afternoon became evening and the awards dinner wound down, a few of us were still in the clubhouse, including all three founding members of AAA and Pettinger. Golf stories were exchanged, mixing easily with conversation and tales from NHL locker rooms -- some of which I only wish I could share here. There was also plenty of talk about our kids -- the real reason we had all made the trek to Kelowna. Any time I've been in the company of this group, it has been immediately obvious to me just how common our experience with autism has been. There were tales of vacations gone awry, of negotiating our children through places like Disney World and even the school playground, of school placements and negotiations for added services. There were also stories of hopeful moments of great achievement that the parent of a child with special challenges learns to treasure. There was also talk of how to make this event bigger and more successful in the years to come.

The tournament was, in the end, a great success. Nearly $200,000 was raised for Autism Speaks (the parent group of AAA) and its efforts in Canada. And a group that may have come out for a wide variety of reasons left with a better understanding of a disorder that has caused so much difficulty in so many lives.

Athletes Against Autism

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