TORONTO — Dominic Moore can’t believe it’s been five years already. The NHL player’s Smashfest charity ping-pong party has now raised more than $500,000 for the research of concussions and rare cancers.
But the gravity of those underfunded causes was hardly front and centre Thursday night at Steam Whistle Brewery, as a packed house of partygoers mingled and rallied with NHL stars — and that’s the point.
“When you’re here, you’re not thinking about that. You’re just having fun,” Moore said. “You look around and see all the smiles on people’s faces, we couldn’t be more proud of it.”
Like its predecessors, Smashfest V was a rousing, raucous success. An important fundraiser masked as a mid-summer party.
“We have to keep sending money to research,” said Hall of Famer Eric Lindros, happy to support Moore’s effort. “Research is what’s going to give us a tangible recourse in these situations.”
Over the course of the evening, we had a chance to catch up with some of the NHLers in attendance — Mitch Marner, handsome Aaron Ekblad, Darnell Nurse, Chris Kreider, Cam Talbot — and gathered a few nuggets, both hockey and ping-pong related.
Here are 29 of them.
1. Some of the 20-plus NHLers who come out to Smashfest are there for fun, but a few — like Vancouver’s Alex Burrows and Dallas’s Patrick Eaves — are there for blood.
“We love that intensity, the will to win. The locker room culture draws that out,” Moore said. “Every team has a couple of ringers.”
Carolina’s Jeff Skinner joined the subset of players who brought their own custom paddle to the tourney.
“I think that means he’s taken a step,” Moore said.
2. We’re not sure if we should hope this is sweat or hope it’s not sweat on Skinner in this photo:
“I felt more like the player I’m used to being. The first one I went in not knowing what to expect. I was really nervous and kind of scared to do things out there,” he said.
4. The morning after Smashfest, Marner went out and bought himself a new whip, a Ford F-150 — the same vehicle of choice for head coach Mike Babcock. Well played, rookie.
5. The Leafs’ most recent first-round picks, Marner and Auston Matthews, hit it off smashingly in Niagara Falls this summer. Though they never played together, Marner was impressed by the No. 1 pick’s humility, work ethic and generosity with fans.
“Me and him got pretty close during rookie camp. We brought a PlayStation down, and there was a little 2B2 NBA tournament going on down there. I think we played the majority of the time against each other,” Marner said. “It was a lot of fun getting to know him. He’s going to do great things for this city, and there are exciting times coming for sure.
“He can do wonderful things with the puck.”
6. Marner > Matthews at PlayStation?
“In the 2B2 tournament, me and my teammate had the upper hand on him,” Marner smiled. “They couldn’t figure out their pairings too well, so we had their number.”
“I kinda knew they were talking about it. The way I found out about the trade, I was cooking lunch after my workout and I was away form my phone. When I grabbed my phone there was a lot of messages and phone calls,” the Hull native said. “I’m just excited to go home.”
“It’s weird. We’re a pretty tight-knit group, and I’m really good friends with Derick, like everyone is. He’s such an amicable guy and he gets along with everyone really well. It’s hard from that angle,” Kreider said.
“Those kinds of moves, you let the front office mull over, so I can’t speak to the trade itself,” he said. “But I’m sure Mika’s a great kid and I’ll learn to love him too, but it’s hard to see a good guy go, right?”
Both Kreider and Moore believe the Sens landed a skilled play-maker who’s incredible in the room.
“He’s been one of our best players for three years, and he’s been instrumental to our deep playoff runs,” Kreider said. “They’re getting a hell of a player.”
Who would be suited to inherit Willie Mitchell‘s C?
“We have a lot of great leaders, a ton of great leaders. Derek MacKenzie, Jussi Jokinen, we used to have Brian Campbell… they lead in all different kinds of ways. I think it’s more of a group of guys that lead the team in the right direction,” Ekblad said.
“I’m still learning big-time from those guys, and I learned a hell of a lot from Willie Mitchell. Day by day, I’m just kind of taking like a sponge from these guys. It’s something I would grow into if given that opportunity.”
10. Besides the host, only one player has managed to participate in all five Smashfests: Nick Kypreos. Logan Couture and Kevin Weekes made it to the first four editions of the event but were unable to make it Thursday.
11. Moore is effusive in his gratitude for the NHLers past and present who come out to support.
“Summer is precious for hockey guys. They’re at the mercy of the schedule, playing every other day and back-to-backs all season long. They deserve and cherish that rest and time with their families. So to give some of that time is great,” Moore says. “The players have a blast. They want to come back because it’s so much fun. That’s something we’re very proud of.”
12. Holy crap. A set of autographed LeBron James and Sidney Crosby jerseys were live-auctioned off for a cool 10 G’s. Suffice it to say that’s more than the Barbara Streisand tickets at the silent auction went for.
13. Keith Yandle might actually be worth every penny of his shiny new $44.45-million contract with the Florida Panthers.
“Creating offence in this league is hard,” Moore said of his former teammate. “You look at guys like that who have a knack for it, they’re worth their weight in gold. Keith was a huge part of our offence this year form the back end, and he’s a difference maker. He’s got some unique abilities that not a lot of players bring in this league, so that’s a big pickup for Florida.”
With the addition of Yandle and Jason Demers, Ekblad says he’s excited how young and mobile the Cats’ back end will be.
14. After eight months on ice, hockey players prefer hot vacations.
Kreider went surfing in Hawaii. Ekblad and a handful of Panthers teammates (Reilly Smith, Jonathan Huberdeau, Garrett Wilson, Alex Petrovic) rented a boat in the Bahamas and played around in the ocean in order to “let the post-season loss sink in for a bit.”
Darnell Nurse hit up the Bahamas, too, but stayed by the pool for six days. Marner and his family took off to Jamaica for the first time to “let loose,” and the kid approves.
“It’s definitely a place I would recommend going to visit,” Marner said.
15. The Panthers have a handful of excellent ping-pong players, but Ekblad doesn’t consider himself one of the elite. He did little to no training for the tournament.
“Huberdeau’s pretty good. [Vincent] Trocheck can hold his own. [Aleksander] Barkov. Even [Jaromir] Jagr’s got a weird little thing going on that he’s pretty good at,” Ekblad said, making an awkward, inside-out hand motion.
“It was a fun time. We had a good table,” he says. “Great memories.”
17. Marner’s mom jokes about how much she hates that her son devours plates of food but still can’t put on a ton of weight.
The junior MVP’s strategy?
“I’m trying to eat as much food as I can until I’m full.”
18. The best ping-pong player on the Edmonton Oilers?
“I’d have to give it to my boy Leon Draisaitl because I think if I didn’t give it to him he’d be mad at me,” Nurse said.
19. Kia Rio has a nice ring to it. Darnell’s younger sister, Kia, is bound for the Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, and is in town for a women’s basketball team camp this week.
“It’s exciting. Gonna get my Canada stuff out and watch on TV. My parents are going there to support her. Still, it’s going to be a lot of fun to keep track of,” Darnell said.
“I thought of going, but with the timing being so close to training camp, I don’t get to go. Definitely in the future, hopefully she’ll go to a couple more and I’ll get to go watch.”
20. Taylor Hall served as a mentor to Nurse when he was a rookie.
“You never want to see teammates go. He was great to me my first year. He showed me the ropes. But at the same time, we addressed a need we had on the back end,” Nurse said of the Hall trade.
“That’s the way hockey works: you give up some things to gain some things. You put all the trust in management. They added a great piece [in defenceman Adam Larsson], and I’m looking forward to getting on the ice and playing with him.”
21. Cam Talbot is going to be a daddy… twice!
“First two. Diving right in. Excited. A little scared. People say you’re never really ready for one let alone two,” Talbot said. “I’ll probably need a little extra help for my wife when we’re on the road, but it’s an exciting time and we’re both happy.”
22. In other Talbot news, he’s anxious to get his new slimmed-down goalie equipment, which is supposed to be used for the upcoming season.
“I haven’t seen any of that. It’s getting toward August now, and no one’s sent us anything. I don’t know if other guys have it or don’t. I know I haven’t seen it and nothing’s come to me for summer training yet. It’ll be interesting to see how strict they are to start the season [with the slimmed-down pads] because if you don’t get it to guys in the summertime to practice with it and get used to it, how can you expect them to start the season with it?” Talbot said.
The Oilers’ No. 1 goalie believes trimming the pads was a better option than increasing net size, but he wants his new equipment yesterday.
“As soon as possible. I’m already back on the ice. The further it goes with me using my old equipment, the more comfortable I’m going to keep getting with that. So the quicker they can get that to us, the more confident guys will be going into the season with it. I think it’s only fair to give us a month or so with it. Especially the guys who are playing the World Cup—they’re going to need it a month or so ahead of time.”
23. The staff and under-24 players on Team North America had a conference call Thursday to discuss World Cup plans, but Ekblad isn’t sure who he’ll be paired with on defence. Sounds like the young guns will have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulder…
“We know we’re the underdogs. We’re the young guys, but we’re not going to play like the underdogs. We have some of the fastest, strongest, most talented young players in the world on our team. So it’s going to be special to see good players shine in different situations,” Ekblad said.
“And because we’re all with peers, there’s no way our talent can be pushed under the rug by older players or someone else in front of you [on the depth chart]. Guys will feel more comfortable in this situation than they would on a team with 30- or 40-year-old veterans on an NHL team.”
24. When asked who on Team North America might increase his star power in the best-on-best tournament, Ekblad looked toward the Winnipeg Jets.
“Mark Scheifele had a big year, just signed a big deal,” he said. “This’ll give him a chance to solidify who he is as a player.”
25. Lindros, a repeat Smashfest supporter, did absolutely zero training.
“Uh, I stretched on the way down,” he said.
The Big E named Pelle Eklund as the best ping-pong player from his era.
26. Because Marner was rocking a Blue Jays fullback, I asked him to name his favourite player.
“It’s pretty tough to pick. You got Stroman, Donaldson, Edwin…” he said. “I’d go Stroman because he’s a guy that everyone doubted. He came out of nowhere and now he’s showing the MLB what’s up.”
27. Burrows is a nasty ping-ponger and wanted to avenge his 2015 loss to Eaves. The two faced off in both the pro-am doubles and NHLer singles finals.
28. Sadly for Burrows, the intense practice sessions paid off. Patrick Eaves successfully defended his crown.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 22, 2016
29. A challenge has been sent out to the low-key ping-pong legend that is Daniel Alfredsson, who remains the tournament’s white whale.
“He’s yet to be here. If he proves it at centre court at Smashfest, then we’ll crown him the champ,” Moore said. “But until then, Patrick Eaves is still the champ.”
— RealPatrickEaves (@Patrick_Eaves) July 22, 2016