The vast majority of Canadians are brought up to appreciate the finer things in life, but there are times when we need a reminder of just how lucky we are. An organization called Right to Play provides us with that, while carrying out countless initiatives and programs in an effort to improve lives of those living in less-fortunate areas of the world. When it comes to athletics and the ability to partake in sports, it’s something most Canadian kids have at their disposal, be it through school curriculums or minor sports organizations in our towns and cities.
But such is not the case for many children living in underprivileged countries. That’s where Right to Play comes in. It’s an international humanitarian organization with origins in Toronto that uses sports as the driving force behind its mandate to improve health, develop skills, and develop a sense of harmony for children and communities in some of the most undeveloped areas of the world. Right to Play also has offices in Great Britain, Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates and the United States.
Working from both the humanitarian and development aspect, Right to Play trains local community leaders as coaches to deliver programs in more than 20 countries affected by war, poverty, and disease in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, guides the work of the organization. Right to Play programs target the most marginalized and disabled children, including refugees and those afflicted with HIV and AIDS.
Right to Play is supported by an international team of top athletes from over 40 countries. As role models, these athletes inspire children, raise awareness and promote opportunities for funding for Right to Play projects. A number of events are held throughout the year to raise funds for this worthy cause. One such event called the Festival Cup was held at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto in early September, sponsored by GMP Capital Trust. It was an exhibition hockey game which included Hollywood celebrities and NHL players, both past and present. The Festival Cup was one of the events kicking off the first weekend of the Toronto International Film Festival.
Mark Brender is Deputy Director of the Canadian Office of Right To Play. “The game was a huge success,” he says. “We are thrilled at the way it went. Players and celebrities loved the entertainment of the game and the quality of the players involved was incredible.” Among the current and former NHL’ers who took part were: Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Curtis Joseph, Matt Stajan, Robyn Regehr, Luc Robitaille, Doug Gilmour and Mats Sundin – who may have been taking his final curtain call at the ACC should his hiatus turn into full-time retirement. Goaltender Sammi Jo Small and Jennifer Botterill of the Canadian women’s national team were also in the lineup.
The celebrities included: Tim Robbins, D.B. Sweeney, Cameron Bancroft, Jim Cuddy and Mark DeCarlo. Research in Motion co-founder Jim Balsillie, the man who brought us the Blackberry and Tom Bernard of Sony Pictures Classics also laced up the blades. Balsillie remains bullish that he will be successful in landing an NHL franchise after hitting a roadblock in his attempts at purchasing the Nashville Predators and then the Pittsburgh Penguins. Prior to going to press, rumour had it Balsillie was again in line to purchase Nashville.
Brender credits a former Toronto radio personality for spearheading the Festival Cup. “It was Joey Scoleri who used to be a DJ at Q107, who now works in Hollywood,” Brender reveals. “He plays hockey with a lot of the guys down there. He really created this through networking at a game at the Sundance Film Festival. From there he got in touch with Right To Play and things got started.” If you don’t recognize the name Joey Scoleri, you might remember his on-air alias from his days at CILQ: Joey Vendetta.
Prior to the game, about 6,000 fans in attendance watched video footage on the large screen monitor of footage of Right To Play’s work throughout many countries in the world. Olympic gold medalist and Right To Play Athlete Ambassador Adam van Koeverden, Kevin Sullivan, CEO of GMP Securities, and the reigning Miss Canada kicked-off the inaugural Festival Cup with a ceremonial puck drop between hockey legends Gilmour and Sundin.
After a thoroughly entertaining contest, Balsillie was candid in the dressing room in saying how he felt a bit like a fish out of water – or perhaps that should be frozen water. “I can make million-dollar deals, but I was unbelievably nervous before the game thinking about playing with all these guys in front of a big crowd,” he laughed.
Tim Robbins, who was sitting next to Balsillie in the dressing room, was definitely a fan favourite. “Those guys are fast,” he said in amazement, referring to the NHL players. “I seem to be slowing down a little bit, but I still scored in the shootout.” He’s an individual who’s never shy about revealing his political views much like his equally famous wife, actress Susan Sarandon. That part of Robbins was on display front-and-centre during the event, when the star of The Shawshank Redemption donned a sweater with the name Obama and the number 08 on the back for the second period.
“It’s a great inspiration to see so many high-profile stars from Hollywood and the hockey world come together for the inaugural Festival Cup,” said Johann Olav Koss, president and CEO of Right To Play. “These actors and athletes understand that sport and play are critical tools to help children and communities in disadvantaged areas of the world build a healthier, more peaceful future.” Other than perhaps American Eric Heiden, the Norwegian Koss is one of the most decorated long-track speedskaters in Olympic history.
A number of other individual athletes and organizations are also strong supporters of this charity. “We’re really fortunate to have the support of MLS’E and Jose Calderon with the Raptors,” Brender says. “Right To Play Night with the Raptors will be December 14 versus Portland.”
A cheque presentation made to the organization prior to a Blue Jays game against the Yankees late last month. “Right To Play is one of two official charities of Toronto FC,” Brender notes. “We also get great support from the likes of the women’s national ski team in Lake Louise and the Canadian women’s hockey team and we’ll hear more from them heading up to 2010.” Other Canadian athletes who’ve become heavily involved with this charity include former Olympians Silken Laumann and Clara Hughes.
“In the refugee camps in Sudan I saw children whose days were void of anything but intense boredom,” Laumann reveals. “To these children, Right To Play and our partners bring play, and with play the opportunity to lean and grow and develop their potential.” “What I witnessed with Right To Play programs in Ethiopia is clear evidence of what sport and play are doing,” Hughes states. “Hope is such an important thing. It was clear without Right To Play, the disadvantaged and disabled children we visited would not have had the same opportunities to evolve, gain confidence, and experience a sense of security and belonging.”
“I believe in the positive power of sport and play for children,” echoes Wayne Gretzky, Honourary Chair of Right to Play’s Canadian Advisory Board. “In addition to keeping kids out of trouble and engaging them in a constructive activity, sports teach children many lessons and values including teamwork and determination.”
“We are thrilled at the way it went. Players and celebrities loved the entertainment of the game.” – Mark Brender
“It’s a great inspiration to see so many high-profile stars from Hollywood and the hockey world come together for the inaugural Festival Cup.” – Johan Olav Koss
“I believe in the positive power of sport and play for children.” – Wayne Gretzky