SPORTS WATCH

A sports rarity: good cooking, good cause

The players, many with incomes far beyond their dreams, wrapped themselves in aprons and served a five-course dinner

TRENT FRAYNE March 9 1992
SPORTS WATCH

A sports rarity: good cooking, good cause

The players, many with incomes far beyond their dreams, wrapped themselves in aprons and served a five-course dinner

TRENT FRAYNE March 9 1992

A sports rarity: good cooking, good cause

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

The players, many with incomes far beyond their dreams, wrapped themselves in aprons and served a five-course dinner

Once it was possible to read the sports pages and come away with a smile. There would be a funny line from Casey Stengel (“All right, boys, line up alphabetically by height”) or Yogi Berra (“Nobody goes there anymore; it’s too crowded”), but now they’re endlessly depressing (no amount of money seems enough for some players; Mike Tyson is guilty of rape).

Well, not endlessly. Sometimes enough sunlight brightens sport’s tiny world to indicate that not all the young millionaires are wallowing in self-centredness. There is this restaurant called Alice Fazooli’s Italian Crabshack Saloon in the hulking shadow of SkyDome in Toronto’s downtown, and on a recent Sunday night in February it was brimming with guests at a dinner and auction originated, planned, organized and manned on a volunteer basis by the wives of Toronto Maple Leaf players and by the players themselves. The purpose was to raise money for a women’s hostel called Nellie’s, named for Nellie McClung, the Prairie leader for women’s rights. And because of the way the players and the women in their lives handled this project, a cheque for $45,000 was produced for Nellie’s.

Nellie’s is not your average fund raisers’ prestige item such as the more popular Canadian Cancer Society or the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Instead, Nellie’s is a relatively obscure haven for battered women and homeless ones, open around the clock and around the calendar. It shelters 30 women and children a night and welcomes more than 100 different women every month. The players’ wives agreed that tins was to be their project.

The undertaking began not long after Cliff and Boots Fletcher moved to Toronto from Calgary. Cliff had run the Flames since their inception in Atlanta in 1972, and had overseen the team’s cross-country switch to Calgary in 1980. Last summer, he became the Maple Leaf president and general manager in Toronto. In due course, Boots arranged a luncheon to acquaint the wives of Maple Leaf players with

one another, the first time anything of this nature had occurred in Toronto. She says it is not uncommon in other hockey cities where she and Cliff have been located—Atlanta, St. Louis, Calgary. “If the wives are happy, the players are happy,” she says. “Off the ice has a lot to do with on the ice.”

Many of the wives did not know one another. “We came from a lot of teams,” recalled Jill Fuhr, whose husband, Grant, came from the great days of the Oiler dynasty in Edmonton. “There were girls at the luncheon who’d been with Vancouver, Los Angeles, the Rangers, Minnesota and other teams. Most of them had done something in their communities, and we were all anxious to do something here, especially something to benefit women. Elaine Reese, Jeff’s wife, came up with Nellie’s as our project. Kandis Petit, Michel’s wife, recommended the Alice Fazooli restaurant.” Reese and Petit were later traded to Calgary, but, Fuhr said, “the girls who came in fit right in.” So after weeks of organizing, the big night arrived on a Sunday in February, an off night for the team. The players, many of them with incomes far beyond their dreams or those of any of the 230 people who paid $100 a ticket, wore special white sweatshirts with a Nellie’s

emblem and went to work serving horsd’oeuvre and drinks before the guests sat down, and then joined their wives to serve a five-course gourmet dinner when they did. These were not simply hockey players in aprons. For this night, these were waiters. They took orders, cleared dishes and brought coffee and dessert with enthusiasm and unexpected skill.

Of course, the waiters were a large part of the dinner’s attraction, an assortment of moonlighters whose combined incomes reached, at a guess, $10 million annually. Here, hustling from the kitchen to his assigned table, was Grant Fuhr, whose goaltending brings him $1.6 million a year. There, balancing a tray of veal scallopini in a Grand Marnier sauce, was Doug Gilmour, a centre who is paid only slightly less than Fuhr. And at various other tables were familiar hockey faces and their young, earnest wives. It was a sort of nirvana for hockey fans.

Earlier, guests’ coats had been checked by Cliff Fletcher and Boots (her square name is Donna, but nobody has called her that since childhood). As the driving force behind the dinner, she had joined the restaurant manager, Jane Bolton, in selecting an exotic menu.

When they’d cleared the dishes, the players were involved in an auction whose prizes ranged from a three-day junket with the Leafs to Los Angeles for a March 9 game against the Kings, to a 90-minute balloon ride with two asyet-unnamed Leaf players. There was even an auction for a ride between periods of a Leaf game on the Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine. Bidding on this breathtaking adventure ended when Paul Beeston, president of the Toronto Blue Jays, cried to the auctioneer, hockey announcer Joe Bowen, “Twenty-five hundred!”

At $45,000, the dinner’s take was a long way from, say, a philanthropist’s endowment to a hospital, but it was an even longer leap from the arrogance and greed of some athletes. As an example of the latter, basketballer David Robinson demanded that San Antonio Spurs owner Red McCombs provide a chartered aircraft for the team’s road trips instead of firstclass airline tickets. Such is the state of some of the big spectator sports, the owner hastened to do as he was bid. The other day, Barry Bonds, outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, demanded a clause in his new $4.7-million contract that grants him his own suite of hotel rooms when the Pirates play in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Pirates obliged.

Such excess is the product of a peculiar mindset by some players. Jeffrey Sammons, an associate professor at New York University, is quoted by The New York Times. “There is a feeling of invincibility and invulnerability among athletes. I think it’s something that is conditioned in them. There’s a male machismo there that they can take what they want and that society will overlook their transgressions.”

Still, every once in a while, a kind of altruism breaks through, as happened this night at Alice Fazooli’s Italian Crabshack Saloon, bringing hope that the lunatics haven’t entirely taken over the asylum.