Melnyk lends a hand

ROB LONGLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:59 AM ET

Eugene Melnyk barely blinks at spending $1 million on a thoroughbred racehorse or many times that in annual salary for an Ottawa Senators hockey player.

So why not a nice seven-figure donation to help out some of the country's top amateur athletes?

The Toronto billionaire wrote a cheque for $1 million yesterday to kick off a funding drive for the Canadian Athletes Now Fund.

"More and more I meet (amateur athletes) and I am in awe of what they go through to get where they are," Melnyk said after a press conference at the Royal York Hotel.

"This is a lifetime thing for them, so when they finally have their shot, we have to give them all the help we can."

It didn't take much for CAN founder and executive director Jane Roos to convince the Sens owner to get involved. He was approached less than two weeks ago.

Yesterday a group of some 40 amateur athletes in line to benefit from the benevolence were on hand to help launch the Patrons of Sport campaign, which Melnyk hopes will encourage Canadians coast-to-coast to get involved.

"It is almost the same kind of passion I had when people said the Senators were going to move down south," Melnyk said. "Hey, this is our national pride here. I want to make sure I can do my little part to contribute."

Roos said she has been looking for a big player like Melnyk -- whom she referred to yesterday as "Captain Canada" -- for most of the 10 years she has been involved in raising funds for cash-strapped amateur athletes.

The CAN fund distributes twice yearly cheques of $6,000 to those in need of additional funding for housing, training and food.

"My biggest thing is that professional sport should be giving back to the athletes," Roos said. "There's no reason why all the hockey players can't be adopting an athlete.

"When someone takes a leadership role it just snowballs. This is just what we need."

For his part, Melnyk admits his life is so much about sports now that he couldn't help but bite.

His thoroughbred stable, a North American powerhouse, had a big day Sunday at Woodbine when Marchfield captured the Breeders' Stakes and a $300,000 cheque.

His Senators were Stanley Cup finalists this past spring and Melnyk himself attended the past two winter Olympics which fueled his passion for the amateur athletes.

"You can't imagine my players not having a coach, not having the best equipment and not being able to eat properly," Melnyk said. "I've heard of gut-wrenching stories from families who had to re-mortgage their homes to (athletes) staying in youth hostels.

"When you hear some of the stories, this was an easy one to get involved in."


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