Dominic Moore brings his hero to Maple Leafs-heavy Smashfest

NHL players put their table tennis skills to the test at Smashfest, with proceeds going to concussion and rare cancer research, organized by Dominic Moore.

TORONTO — “My hero.”

Smashfest founder and host Dominic Moore smiles wide as he speaks about the Toronto Maple Leafs past and present who have checked the yes box on invitations to attend the greatest ping-pong tournament-slash-party-slash-fundraiser on the hockey social calendar. But it’s the reappearance of Doug Gilmour, returning to the fray for the first time in four years, that whisks Moore, a 14-year NHL veteran, back to his youth.

“Oh, yeah. Huge. I was 13 in ’93, and he played a style I loved. He was a two-way guy and always seemed to have two black eyes. I love Dougie. And the Leafs were good. Legendary seasons in ’93 and ’94. He was my guy,” Moore says in a sit-down with Sportsnet ahead of Smashfest VII, which takes place Wednesday at Toronto’s Steamwhistle Brewery.

“I remember years ago, when I was a rookie in New York, he did a bowl-a-thon, which I thought was a cool event, different than the average golf event. So it was cool to go to his event, and now for him to come to mine? It’s pretty sweet.”

Smashfest, Moore’s brain-benefitting brainchild, turns seven years old this summer, mashing table tennis, revelry and fan-driven philanthropy into a cocktail for success. More important than filling fans’ autograph books (do they still make those?) and IG feeds and livers, Smashfest has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the collaborative research concussions and rare cancers, two causes dear to Moore.

“We’re trying to drive more dollars than ever. I don’t know if we’re going to hit that $1 million mark that we hoped for. We got to $665,000 last year, but that’s what we’re shooting for,” says Moore, whose team devoted this off-season to spicing up Smashfest.ca to drive more donations.

“The fact it’s been this many years already, it’s something to be very proud of — to not only sustain this but to grow it. It’s a lot of work. The team that works on it, we’re always trying to enhance it, trying to grow it.”

To that end, Moore’s season as a Maple Leaf has paid off. Many of his new friends will be among the 20-plus active NHLers in attendance.

In addition to Gilmour, Smashfest’s most Leaf-heavy guest list features Mitch Marner, Travis Dermott, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman, Josh Leivo, and the preeminent paddle-wielder of them all, William Nylander.

“He was my rival this year on the ping-pong tables, so I’ve been really excited to get him over. For him to come all the way from Sweden to be part of this is absolutely amazing,” says Moore, who entered the league waging epic ping-pong battles in the Rangers’ room with William’s father, Michael.

“This event fits Willy well. He loves table tennis. He’s a young star in Toronto that will be able to showcase his personality, and he’s not the kinda guy who’s an easy nut to crack, so it’ll be fun for everyone to see a different side of him.”

Moore says that, in-season, the Maple Leafs’ ping-pong culture was limited compared to some of the other teams he’s played on (Martin St. Louis, for example, is a beast), but that changed at the club’s send-off shindig.

“Willy and I were the only ones who got the table out on any decent basis. Bozie used to play with Kessel and those guys, but he didn’t seem to be into it that much. I know there’s guys who like to play, like van Riemsdyk,” Moore explains.

“We had our year-end party and we all went out for dinner, and guys started getting into it with trash-talking. I hope to bring some of that out [Wednesday] with so many Leafs at the event.”

Nylander, Moore and Carolina winger Jeff Skinner are among the best bets to finally dethrone Anaheim forward Patrick Eaves, Smashfest’s three-time defending champion.

The NHL prides itself on a parity that’s not so much mirrored by the PA’s ping-pong contest, with Eaves now on the brink of a four-peat.

“There is parity,” Moore counters. “[Alex] Burrows had Eaves down two sets to love and three match points and lost [in Smashfest V]. It could very well have not been a three-peat at all. And I’ve won sets off Pat. But, again, he’s still the three-time champion.

“I’m hoping it creates too much expectations and he tries to live up to them and can’t play up to his level. But he takes it very seriously.”

When not busy redesigning Smashfest’s website and encouraging former teammates to support the cause, Moore, an unrestricted free agent who acts as his own agent, has dedicated his off-season to staying in peak shape and is fully anticipating work this fall as a 38-year-old fourth-line centre — just not in Toronto.

Despite being healthy-scratched 32 times last season, the ever-diplomatic Moore gleans the good from his brief return to his hometown team and, sitting at 897 career games, he’d love to skate in that magical 1,000th.

“It would’ve been nice to get to 900 this year. Certainly, at the beginning of the year, I wasn’t expecting not to get there. It’s elite company that gets to 1,000 games, and that’s definitely something to aspire to,” says Moore, who’s in conversations with multiple teams about a 2018-19 roster spot.

“That camaraderie I was able to gain with those guys [on the Leafs] through the season is great, and the event is a good indication of that. We had a special year. We qualified for the playoffs, had a great regular season and obviously had higher expectations than the way we performed in the playoffs. So that’s very disappointing, but it was rewarding playing at home.

“Now it’s a matter of looking forward and seeing what’s next.”

What’s immediately next, Moore teases, is “a fun surprise in terms of a personality” who will drop by Smashfest VII.

“Would that surprise guest hail from the tennis world?” we ask.

“I don’t want to over-hype it,” Moore says, slyly, “but you’ve got some good instincts.”

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