‘Humble beginnings’ lead to Hall

by CP Lori Ewing

TORONTO — Simon Whitfield’s love affair with sports began around a pothole on Couper Street in Kingston.The hole in the road near his childhood home became centre ice, and Whitfield and his friends would gather there after school for a game of road hockey.

“All my sporting dreams were born there, all the camaraderie I enjoyed in sport, and this love of sport began at that pothole,” Whitfield said. “I remember it was during the Edmonton Oilers’ heyday, so you were allowed to be anybody but Wayne Gretzky.

“Just your imagination and how it works, and you’re imagining yourself in this position, and then years later you’re one of those athletes. And I think it all begins there. Think of that game you played as kids — ‘How about?’ and ‘Imagine if.’ That brought me right back to that. I don’t think I ever said, ‘Imagine if I was in the Hall of Fame.’”

The Olympic triathlon champion was one of nine individuals inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame on Thursday, and like his Hall of Fame classmates, the occasion had Whitfield reflecting on his “humble beginnings,” and his journey to become one of the country’s greatest athletes.

“You don’t prepare as an athlete for this,” Whitfield said. “You’re preparing for these [competitions] where you want to express your gift, and then someone calls you and says, ‘You’re in the Hall of Fame. … It’s also a nice end to the chapter. It was a big part of my life, and to be recognized for those sporting accomplishments and then move on to the next thing.”

Whitfield joined Stanley Cup champion Lanny McDonald, Olympians Carol Huynh and Cindy Klassen, golfer Mike Weir, lacrosse standout Gaylord Powless and the Edmonton Grads women’s basketball team. Neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator and Canadian Paralympic founder Dr. Robert W. Jackson were named in the builder’s category. Powless and Jackson were both honoured posthumously.

The 42-year-old Whitfield won gold at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, where triathlon made its debut. McDonald remembers that day.

“I’m a huge sports fan and to be able to think back and watch Mike Weir win the Masters, to see Simon running [toward the finish line]. I teased him, he’s got his shirt done up today,” McDonald joked about the iconic image of Whitfield sprinting across the finish line, skinsuit unzipped to his navel.
Whitfield won silver eight years later at the Beijing Olympics.

McDonald, 64, amassed 500 goals and 506 assists in 1,111 career games with Toronto, Colorado and Calgary from 1973 to ’89. He scored the winning goal to lead the Flames to their 1989 Stanley Cup and then retired.

The highlight of Thursday’s news conference came when Kay MacBeth, who at 95 is the only surviving member of the Edmonton Grads, asked McDonald for a kiss.

“How about that?” McDonald grinned through his still-bushy moustache.

His outgoing demeanour and his red moustache made McDonald one of hockey’s most iconic figures, and he hopes he inspired young people and players “to play the game just the way that we did, and bring their best effort each and every day, and bring passion and enthusiam regardless of what you do.”

“You try very hard to be a great example, you try hard to make a difference in other people’s lives, my father [Lorne] was a great teacher and mentor in making sure that if someone needed help, you jump in and help, whether that be through charities or just trying to inspire other people to be good Canadians more than anything.”

The 38-year-old Klassen of Winnipeg is Canada’s most decorated Winter Olympian with six medals (gold, two silver, three bronze). Five came at the 2006 Turin Games (gold, two silver, two bronze).

Weir, 47, became the first Canadian to capture the Masters in 2003. The native of Bright’s Grove, Ont., has registered 15 pro wins and in 2000 became the first Canadian to play in the President’s Cup.

The 36-year-old Huynh, who recently gave birth to her second child and so wasn’t at Thursday’s event, became the first Canadian to win Olympic gold in women’s wrestling in Beijing in 2008. Four years later in London, the native of Hazelton, B.C., claimed bronze.

The Edmonton Grads amassed a stunning 502-20 record from 1915 to 1940. The team also participated in four straight Olympics (1924-36) and was 27-0 but received no medals because women’s basketball wasn’t an official event.

“I’ve got all the memories of the girls I’ve played with, and to think I’m the last one is not fair. It’s not fair,” MacBeth said. “There were some great players I played with, and without them I certainly wouldn’t be here today.”

Powless of Ohsweken, Ont., led the Oshawa Green Gaels to four Minto Cup championships (1964-67) and was twice named the most valuable player. He and his father, Ross, are both members of the Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Fame. Powless died in July 2001 at age 54.

Jackson was a founding member of the Canadian Paralympic movement in 1967, and in ’76 organized the Olympiad for the physically challenged. The Toronto native died in January 2010 at age 78.

Tator, 80, of Toronto is an expert on sports concussions and spinal cord injury. In 1992, he founded ThinkFirstCanada, which helps educate young athletes, in 2002, helped develop the Canadian Brain and Nerve Health Coalition two years later.