NHL Alumni Take Shot At Finding Cure For Alzheimer’s

By Steve McLean 12/9/11 | www.samaritanmag.com

(L to R) Mark Napier, Dr. Frank Turner, Johnny Bower, Dr. Dan Andreae and Mike Pelyk at the Social Work Doctors’ Colloquium’s Award of Merit celebration dinner

The National Hockey League Alumni Association has raised more than $16 million for Alzheimer's disease research since launching a Toronto tournament that gave pick-up players the chance to play shinny with some of their former professional heroes in 2006.

The Scotiabank Pro-Am for Alzheimer's expanded to Edmonton in 2010 and Calgary this year, when it raised $5.1 million, and will move into Vancouver next year. Four members of the non-profit alumni association -- executive director Mark Napier, chairman Mike Pelyk, Wendel Clark and Johnny Bower -- were honoured for their efforts at the Social Work Doctors' Colloquium's eighth annual Award of Merit celebration dinner at Toronto's University Club on Nov. 30.

Wendel Clark
Wendel Clark
"This is something that all of us are affected by somewhere along the line," Clark, a former Toronto Maple Leafs captain, told www.samaritanmag.com before the dinner. "We know somebody or have family members with Alzheimer's."

Half-a-million Canadians have Alzheimer's disease or a related dementia, and approximately 71,000 of them are under 65. This year alone, more than 103,000 Canadians will develop dementia, and an aging population is expected to push that figure to more than 257,000 by 2038. Alzheimer's still has no known cause or cure.

Toronto's Baycrest is the global leader in developing and providing innovations in aging and brain health, and is a partner of the alumni association in the Scotiabank Pro-Am.

"My father-in-law was originally diagnosed with Alzheimer's and I was fortunate enough to get him into Baycrest to be treated," said Napier, who won Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers. "They discovered that it wasn't actually Alzheimer's, but a form of dementia called lewy body disease. It really hits home when you see a very important man in your life suffer from that horrible disease, so it's kind of two-pronged why I'm involved in this."

Pelyk said the goal is to take the hockey tournament into cities across Canada to maximize its impact. The former Maple Leafs defenceman emphasized that while he may have co-founded the tournament and was receiving a plaque, many others have dedicated themselves to the cause and deserve acknowledgment.

Johnny Bower
Johnny Bower
"I've played a small part in it, but I have to say that it's like any team game. There are a million people involved with it that all contribute to varying degrees. And because they're all working together for such a great cause, we've raised a lot of money to fight this dreadful disease.

"We can only hope that not only can we find remedies and treatments, but eventually find a cure for a disease that's not only painful for the person who's experiencing it, but for the human tragedies it causes in families. The sooner we find a cure, the better off we'll all be."

Bower has long been active with charities, and the 87-year-old four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Maple Leafs said he has no intention of slowing down as a samaritan.

"It's always nice to receive things, but you have to give something back. That's what I like to do. I like to give something back. I'm not a young guy anymore, so I enjoy every moment."

The Hall of Fame goaltender played all but five of his 626 NHL games without a face mask and said he almost lost an eye a few times, but was never afraid of head injuries -- which some researchers believe can bring an earlier onset of Alzheimer's.

Mark Napier
Mark Napier
Napier admitted to receiving a few concussions during his long professional career, but said he's "not too concerned" about their long-term effects on his health. Still, he's happy that up to 100 retired NHL players will take part in a research study conducted by Baycrest's Rotman Research Institute that will track their brain health over several years. Napier hopes the findings will have wider implications for all aging adults.

"There are so many rumours floating around now about concussions and the severity of them that I don't want to downplay it, but it would be nice to get some definitive answers. With this study, they're going to check diet, genetics and the whole nine yards. It's not just going to be about concussions. It's going to be about the whole life experience that someone's had, and hopefully we can get some answers from it."

To find out more about how you can "stick it to Alzheimer's" by taking part in or supporting one of the Scotiabank Pro-Am tournaments next spring, please visit www.scotiabankproam.com.

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* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.