Once upon a time, many years ago, your friendly neighbourhood golf blogger also regularly covered hockey, among other sports.
That all-Canadian gig often took me to the hallowed halls of Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, where I would regularly be summoned to the stall of charismatic Peter Zezel inside the Leafs’ dressing room after practice, when idle chit-chat and good-natured verbal darts would be exchanged.
Zezel’s wide grin as he zinged me a good one was on my mind, as it was with all who knew him, after his passing this week at the age of 44 due to complications of a blood disorder that he had battled for 10 years.
Fond memories are not the only purpose of mentioning Zezel in this golf blog. I never teed it up with him, but word is he was a fine golfer and the game was one aspect of sports camps for kids that Zezel was involved with after his retirement from the National Hockey League.
Oddly enough, it’s a hockey event that Zezel helped promote that could serve as a model for golf to follow if it hopes to open its doors to new demographics.
Zezel, of Serbian and Irish descent, helped launch the Canadian Multicultural Hockey League, which is actually more of a tournament called the Canadian Multicultural Hockey Championships, held each year between Christmas and New Year.
“Initially, we thought we could get four, maybe five, six teams max, but when it ended up that we had 16 teams instantly, I had no ice,” said Stan Papulkas, who originally thought of the idea back in the 1980s.
Papulkas, who is of Greek/Macedonian descent, and Zezel decided to go with the tournament format instead of league play in order to offer well-organized, highly-competitive play between various ethnic communities.
“The concept from the beginning has always been that we wanted to be able to show everyone that the game of hockey is what binds all Canadians together,” said Papulkas, who works for multicultural broadcaster OMNI TV, which is part of Rogers Communications.
The idea is not to have players and/or teams representing their homelands or the homelands of their parents, but rather, to come together in a truly Canadian fashion.
For one thing, you need to live in Canada to play and there are no flags from other countries on team jerseys and no national anthem other than Canada’s is played at games.
“This championship is about being able to put communities together in that we don’t want you playing for Serbia or Greece. You’re not playing for a country. You’re playing as a Canadian representing your heritage,” said Papulkas, adding that politics and historic frictions between countries rarely become an issue.
“What other hockey in the world can say that they’re going into their fifth year and have not ejected a player for a fight? We are very adamant that fighting is not tolerated and Peter was the one preaching that,” said Papulkas.
“This is not a battle between nations. It is a way of showing how we cooperate with each other and play the game of hockey. It is competitive, it’s extremely competitive,” he added.
As important as hockey is to Canadians, golf is the largest participation sport in this country, so logic dictates that the same sort of program could work as the game looks to open itself up to new players.
“I’m not sure exactly how you would organize it, but let’s just say `Alright, let’s take the top golfers of each community,’ and you have one giant, really good golf tournament,” said Papulkas.
“I was trying to figure out a way to do something really unique and I thought of golf as a part of this,” said Papulkas, adding that several different sports such hockey, golf, basketball and others could be played over the course of a year with the winning team getting a “Canada Cup” at the end.
The plan could conceivably work on a national level, or in more concentrated regions around the country. It would take some hard organizing work to pull it off, but the reward would be opening golf to communities that traditionally don’t play.
The CMHL is proof that it’s worth golf taking a look at its model.
For more information on the Canadian Multicultural Hockey League, see the website, www.cmhl.ca.