Tourney special in every way

BILL LANKHOF, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:03 AM ET

The crowned heads of puckdom descended on Chesswood Arena yesterday.

There was Ken Dryden, the wizard of linguistics. There was Joe Bowen, handling the microphone with the finesse of Wayne Gretzky dangling a puck. Hall of Famer Dick Duff renewed memories of heroes past. David Branch of the Ontario Hockey League and GTHL president John Gardner were there representing tomorrow's Gretzkys.

All gathered to honour 2,500 kids who'll never be Gretzkys but who nonetheless have discovered they can do wonderful, even great things, despite physical challenges. All are registered in special hockey -- and yesterday marked the 15th annual Special Hockey International tournament.

"I'd like to see more athletes exposed to this. I find the general public believes these athletes can't do much out there. We prove that isn't the case," said Joe Rizzuto, president of the Grandravine Tornadoes, a special-needs team.

Normally, this would be all about the kids, 750 of them from England, Canada and the U.S., who marched into the arena busting their buttons like they'd just won a Stanley Cup. The SHI is a league for people who live with Autism, Down syndrome, Asperger syndrome and other diseases.

But not this year.

"We thought it made sense to rename the tournament the Jim Gregory Friendship Tournament. The entire hockey world unites for special hockey because of Mr. Gregory," says Dave Bodanis, co-founder of Jake's House for autistic children, a sister charity of Special Hockey International. "Nobody else could've brought the hockey world together like he did. We owe a lot to him."

Some people recognize Gregory as a former general manager of the Maple Leafs. Some know him from hometown rinks where he'd show up as a keen evaluator of young talent. He's in the Hall of Fame. Today most recognize him as the senior vice-president of the National Hockey League.

Few realize he has helped thousands of developmentally challenged athletes find a place to grow, to play, to find friends.

"I asked him if he'd do me one favour -- if he could get his friends behind Special Hockey International -- that's about 450 favours ago now," Bodanis said yesterday at the tournament's official opening. It runs through tomorrow.

MODEST BEGINNINGS

"He and my dad were friends and when my dad passed away in 1979, anytime I needed anything Mr. Gregory was always there. True to his character, he got Bobby Orr. He got Wayne Gretzky. He got Don Cherry."

The SHI began modestly -- two players in 1980 who formed the Tornadoes. It grew slowly with the first international tournament in 1994 featuring only the St. Louis Gateways and Grandravine. They learn skills but the biggest reward is that they make new friends.

"By the end of the games, it doesn't matter who's winning or losing, everyone leaves with a smile. Everyone's a winner," Rizzuto said.

The local SHI has added teams in Durham and North York, which play all winter, and there have been annual tournaments like this weekend in New York, St. Louis, Washington and even England.

"He (Gregory) has helped get virtually every level of hockey to come support the tournament," said Bodanis. "He's an amazing man."

He has also been ill: Unable to attend yesterday's opening after suffering a heart attack.

"It looked pretty bad when it happened. Luckily he was at the NHL offices ... They got him great care in short order.

"Only 5% of cardiac arrest victims actually survive. So he's lucky he got help -- luckily very little damage to his heart, no damage to his brain. He's sharp as ever," Bodanis said. "He did lose 25 pounds. I talk to him almost every day and he is recovering."

Gregory was released from St. Michael's Hospital about 10 days ago.

"He's getting stronger," Bodanis said.

Not strong enough to attend the tournament named after him, but there's a banquet tomorrow night which is expected to draw 1,500 people. There's speculation Gregory might be well enough to make a cameo appearance -- broken but not bowed, like many of the very athletes he has helped.

As hockey tournaments go, this side of carrying the Stanley Cup around the rink, it would be a most fitting climax.


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