How I raised $1 million for my community

NHL legend Marcel Dionne on giving back in retirement

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From the November 2014 issue of the magazine.

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(Photograph by Cole Garside)

NHL legend Marcel Dionne, 63, Niagara Falls, Ont. (Photograph by Cole Garside)

I’ve been interested in giving back to my community since the age of five. I grew up in Drummondville, Que., in the 1950s—the oldest of eight kids. My mom and dad ran the corner store, but times were tough. Lots of people were hungry after WWII but my parents never turned anyone away, always giving more than they could afford. They had a positive attitude and a strong work ethic.

Those two qualities stayed with me, even after I left home at 15 to start my hockey career. Whether it was playing in the NHL in the ’70s and ’80s, participating in a bowling fundraiser for our local hospital or hosting a benefit dinner at my family’s BlueLine Diner and sports collectibles store in Niagara Falls, I’ve always believed that no job or act of charity is too small. Even today, some of my hockey heroes come into the diner and ask why I have a broom in my hand. Or why I’m washing dishes. The truth is I’ve always been driven to help.

Don’t get me wrong. I love hockey and the sport has been good to me. But I always knew it was just a game. Money itself isn’t that important. Living a good life and making a commitment to give back is what really matters. That’s why, from my first days in the NHL, I made a pledge to the face in the mirror that I would fully support several charitable initiatives. I welcomed retirement from professional hockey in 1989 because it meant I could focus on several charities which are close to my heart.

For instance, I’ve done work for Alzheimer’s research because it has touched my family. A favourite uncle had Alzheimer’s and to honour him—as well as fellow hockey players who have suffered concussions and traumatic brain injuries—I support the Scotiabank Baycrest Pro-Am tournament. Amateur teams have to raise at least $25,000 to play alongside the NHL legends. My work with the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis is also important to me. Several years ago a friend of mine broke his neck at age 19 and was paralyzed, so it’s the least I can do. The Sports Legends Dinners, which I’ve participated in, have helped raise more than $99 million for spinal cord research. There are those who let tragic news about a family member’s health devastate them. Others rise to the occasion and do something positive for everyone facing similar health challenges. I always try to keep the fundraising momentum going all the time.

That’s where my family’s diner comes in. Working there helps me stay connected with the community. As customers eat lunch, I chat with them and get to hear first-hand about their family’s health issues and concerns. In fact, some of my best times come from raising modest sums in my local business community. We set financial goals but it’s really not about how much money we raise. The amount will always be more than the recipients had before. Five years ago I signed up with four local businesses to raise $1,000-a-year for five years to help our local hospital. We planned bowling nights, bingo games and pasta dinners. Five years just flew by and we met that goal.

What I’ve learned is that it’s not about writing big cheques—even $5 or $10 goes a long way. Life really isn’t that complicated. If you do good things, then good things come your way. I don’t need a trophy to show me that my charitable work is worth it. I feel it in my heart and see it every day in the eyes of those I try to give something back to. That’s more than enough for me.

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