Daniel Alfredsson got a hero’s welcome as he took to the stage Tuesday night as this year’s honouree of the Jewish National Fund of Ottawa’s Negev Dinner, held at the Infinity Convention Centre.
“Al-fie, Al-fie!” the crowd chanted as the former long-time captain of the Ottawa Senators was presented with a citation for his support of Israel and for his demonstration of philanthropic leadership, integrity, diligence and accomplishments.
Standing alongside him were the honourary co-chairs, Ferguslea Properties president Dan Greenberg and his wife, Barbara Crook; Rabbi Reuven Bulka; Jewish National Fund Ottawa executive director Lynda Taller-Wakter and the president of its board, Dan Mader; JNF Canada CEO Lance Davis; and the dinner chair, Bill Johnston, who is Alfredsson’s personal manager and lawyer.
The retired NHLer was captain for 13 of the 17 years that he played with the Ottawa Senators and remains one of the most respected and beloved individuals with hockey fans and non-hockey fans alike. Since 2008, he’s been a champion in reducing stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness, through his volunteer work with The Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health.
Leave it to pun-loving wordsmith Rabbi Bulka to sum up Alfredsson's contributions this way: “You’ve gone from hockey, where you scored so many goals and assists, to where your goal now is to assist so many people.”
Alfredsson, 45, spoke briefly of his childhood, and of being “a little kid from Sweden” who enjoyed playing street hockey and other sports after school. Back then, he was unfamiliar with the NHL; his dream had been to make the national team. He was also a late physical bloomer; it wasn’t until he was 16 or 17 that his future started to look promising. He credited his coaches for “not giving up on me”.
When he first came to Canada to play for the Sens, he only expected to stay two or three years. Yet, Ottawa has become home to him, his wife Bibbi, and their four boys, whom he helps coach in hockey. He got his Canadian citizenship two years ago.
Alfredsson found a sense of belonging in Ottawa, the room heard. It started during his rookie year, when the team was doing poorly. “People couldn’t have been more supportive. It made me feel like I was really part of something special, and not just playing for myself and the team, but for everyone in Ottawa and Gatineau.”
He also spoke of Ottawa as being a city full of tzedakah. That's a Hebrew word that loosely means “charity” but, more specifically, it refers to an obligatory contribution to the well-being of the world.
“In my 20 years of living here, this community has never failed to help those in need. That’s a reason why I call it home now.”
It was a sold-out dinner, with more than 500 attendees from both the Jewish community and broader Ottawa community. The Ottawa Senators’ former CEO, Cyril Leeder, was there. So were the hockey club’s new COO, Nicolas Ruszkowski, and chief marketing officer, Aimee Deziel, along with Danielle Robinson, president and CEO of the Ottawa Senators Foundation.
Also out supporting the evening was the gang from The Royal, including: Mitchell Bellman, president and CEO of The Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health, Joanne Bezzubetz, the new president and CEO of The Royal Ottawa Health Care Group, Dr. Zul Merali, president, CEO and scientific director of the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, and Dr. Zachary Kaminsky, chair in Suicide Prevention Research at the IMHR.
The evening’s keynote speaker was retired Israeli tennis legend Andy Ram, 38, who joked that he was nervous — not about addressing such a large crowd but about his scheduled tennis match against Alfredsson the next day. It was being held at the Shabinsky family’s Ottawa Athletic Club.
To his credit, the retired hockey star has a slapshot of an overhead serve:
Proceeds from the dinner were to support at-risk youth through the Israel Tennis Center in Kiryat Shmona. ITC offers youth a path to success by giving them free access to social programs via tennis, social workers, help with language skills and homework, and a caring and safe environment. Kiryat Shmona is a northern town in Israel and, over the years, has been frequently under attack, leaving kids feeling vulnerable.
ITC promotes unity by bringing together youth of different races, religions and economic backgrounds. "Every child is welcome and no child is turned away," said Alfredsson.
Crook visited the Israel Tennis Center in Kiryat Shmona to see first-hand how this project is helping at-risk youth. She later described it as a place that "feeds the minds, bodies and souls of its young participants.
"Tennis is just the starting point for young people to learn to make healthy and positive choices in life, from socialization and teamwork to overcoming challenges," she said. "For many of these kids, the ITC has become a second family. And for troubled kids, it’s a place to get counselling and guidance in a non-threatening environment."