Karlsson, ex-Senators lend support to new Ottawa-Gatineau youth foundation

Erik Karlsson during his time with the Ottawa Senators. (Adrian Wyld/CP)

The video runs just one minute and 15 seconds.

The message within is concise, scripted, encouraging but reserved, and yet is nothing short of extraordinary in its symbolism — a deeply-rooted gesture from a starry lineup of ex-Ottawa Senators who teamed up in support of a relaunch of the old Ottawa Senators Foundation.

Following a dramatic and somewhat ugly split with the long-established Senators Foundation this summer, the hockey club formed a new, in-house Ottawa Senators Community Foundation in August. Meanwhile, the original Senators Foundation group, which raised some $35 million for local causes between 1998-2020, announced it was morphing into the Ottawa-Gatineau Youth Foundation.

That makes two — count ‘em, TWO — foundations in the area with hockey connections, one directly linked to the Senators and the other through a handful of Senators alumni, but on the whole based more broadly in the National Capital Region.

What a roster that emerged to support the Ottawa-Gatineau body: Ex-captain Erik Karlsson and his wife, Melinda. Kyle Turris and wife Julie. Bobby Ryan and spouse Danielle. Mark Borowiecki and wife Tara (a board member of the new foundation). Jean-Gabriel Pageau and wife Camille.

Karlsson, Turris, Ryan, Borowiecki and Pageau were local hockey heroes. And they were men of letters. Karlsson wore the ‘C’ and all the rest were alternate captains at some point during their time in Ottawa. Karlsson first suited up for Ottawa in 2009. Borowiecki, Ryan and Pageau were still Senators as recently as March of this year.

“We know change isn’t easy,” says Melinda Karlsson, in the video opening.

“But we also know that change can lead to opportunities to shine,” adds Erik Karlsson.

The official Ottawa-Gatineau Youth Foundation launch takes place -- where else? -- online on Wednesday Oct. 28 at 8:15 a.m. Supporters are asked to register in advance at ogyf.ca. A host of community leaders will be involved in the 30-minute presentation, including ex-Senators, the mayors of Ottawa and Gatineau and former Senators president Cyril Leeder.

Heading up the new foundation (OGYF) as its president and CEO is the same woman who was CEO and president of the original Ottawa Senators Foundation, Danielle Robinson. Robinson, who had been with the Foundation for about 15 of its 22 years, is encouraged by the first steps of her new group.

“In terms of people really rallying around us and offering their support, and stepping up to ensure that we do succeed, it’s been very humbling,” Robinson said.

On Oct. 7, the OGYF added eight new board members, for 16 in total.

The Foundation will retain its core pillars of supporting youth initiatives, through physical activity and mental health programs, but with an added push across the Ottawa River into Gatineau. Five rinks in Gatineau, and five in Ottawa, in marginalized neighbourhoods, will be part of an early initiative to help youth who are struggling through these months of pandemic restrictions.

“The areas we want to get started on are physical and mental wellness,” Robinson said.
“As you know, through Covid, kids are suffering. There’s been a transition to home learning. Children are distanced from friends and there’s not a lot of normalized physical activities.

“Really working in those two areas for the next few months is a priority for us.”

The group is also stepping into a timely new area of focus -- social justice.

“We think young people can have a voice and a voice of change,” Robinson said. “So we are going to be putting some funding together for youth groups, students councils and other charity organizations that are youth focused -- to see their vision and dreams come to fruition.”

Roger’s House, a palliative care facility in Ottawa named after the late Senators coach Roger Neilson, is a legacy project and will continue to get support (the Ottawa Senators have also pledged to continue to help Roger’s House). In addition, the OGYF wants to develop a post-secondary bursary program for students in Gatineau, to match one already established in Ottawa.

As always, Robinson is indebted to the hockey stars stepping up.

“I think it says a lot about their character,” Robinson says. “And while they go and play in other environments, and with other teams, they do have a passion for this region and its citizens.”

Since the fall of 2017, the players on this video and more became ex-Sens. Other than Colin White, who made a cameo playoff appearance in 2017, not a single player remains from the Senators roster that reached the Eastern Conference Final. Karlsson is a San Jose Shark. Ryan is with Detroit, Pageau with the New York Islanders. Borowiecki is a Nashville Predator and Turris is an Edmonton Oiler.

Yet, they share a common bond with the Ottawa and Gatineau communities.

“You know, we loved it here,” Turris said in an interview. “All of us did. The Boros are from here. Karl still lives here. Pager.

“We got to see firsthand what a difference the Foundation makes. How well they did things, with Danielle Robinson. We were familiar with it and saw the positive change they affected.

“It’s a tough time for everybody. We are lucky to be in a position where, if we can help out here and there, we figure, why not?”

The breakup of the Senators Foundation with the hockey club is a sensitive topic. “Philosophical differences” broadly covers it. There were growing differences in approach on the Foundation’s governance, structure, staffing and on where the money was to be used.

“This was not something we wanted,” Robinson says of the split. “It was not something the board wanted, but it just got to a place and time within our history where we had to make a decision based on information we were receiving and here we are.”

Like a divorced couple moving on, both sides are getting fresh starts in the charity business. For the moment, peace prevails.

Senators Community Foundation in gear

Is there room for two major sports foundations in the area, with hockey ties?

Robinson thinks so. She believes the new Senators Community Foundation, headed up by executive director Chris Phillips, whose No. 4 jersey was retired by the team, and senior director Brad Weir, is going to do “some really great things” as well.

“The community wins,” Robinson says. “The need is certainly there.”

Senators president Anthony LeBlanc concurs.

“I couldn’t agree more,” LeBlanc said on Tuesday morning.

“We applaud any group that endeavours to help make our community a better place to live, by whatever philanthropic method. Our plan is to continue the charitable work that has been a part of the Senators for the past 20-plus years, supporting a wide range of organizations in the Ottawa-Gatineau region.”

Since its August launch, the hockey club’s Community Foundation has been involved in a number of initiatives, including loaning the parking lots at the Canadian Tire Centre arena for COVID-19 testing, handing out hockey bobblehead dolls to youngsters getting tested and delivering turkeys to the Ottawa Food Bank for Thanksgiving. Senators alumni Chris Neil and Phillips were part of the turkey run.

This week the Foundation will be delivering a ‘Halloween Party in a Box’ to several youth groups, schools and hospitals across Ottawa and Gatineau, an effort to pump up Halloween for kids whose normal trick or treating has been impacted by COVID-19.

The challenges for both charitable arms at the moment is generating fund-raising in a pandemic, with socializing limits and a hurting economy. The OGYF group will announce some of their financial plans on Wednesday. The Senators Community Foundation will have their bread and butter back when NHL hockey returns.

“There is no opportunity to do typical fund-raising,” LeBlanc says. “By now, we would already have a few home hockey games and the 50/50 raffle would be raising some funds for the Foundation. And we would be running an event or two.”

Weir and Phillips will be looking to virtual ways to raise money, possibly including a charity telethon, and in the meantime will continue the sort of community efforts that delivered turkeys to the Food Bank, thanks to a partnership with Pinty’s.

Welcome to the 2020 charitable world in Ottawa, where two separate community groups are building foundations anew.

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