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Hockey greats team up to save a natural Great

published Feb 5, 2004 - The Globe and Mail


Celebrities often lend their names to charitable endeavours, but a trio of Canadian hockey greats have offered their prestige for something hockey players rarely do by commenting on an environmental controversy.

Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and his brother Tony have signed a high-profile letter asking Ontario Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky to review a proposal to build a huge gravel pit on Lake Superior along the biggest tract of undisturbed shoreline left on the Great Lakes.

Celebrity artists and writers often speak out on sensitive issues, but it is rarer in the hockey world. Even retired players usually adopt an apolitical approach in their public personas and seldom do anything more controversial than appear at charity golf tournaments.

At the Environment Ministry, there were surprised faces when Ms. Dombrowsky's staff received a letter signed by three of the country's most famous hockey stars, among others. "I was looking at . . . the signatures and I thought: 'Oh boy, that's quite an interesting group,' " said Arthur Chamberlain, the minister's media spokesman.

The three hockey players could not be reached for comment.

The trio was among a group of 21 prominent individuals, who also included author Pierre Berton and astronaut Roberta Bondar, who asked for an environmental assessment of a plan to quarry hills overlooking Lake Superior's Michipicoten Bay near Wawa to provide high-quality gravel for U.S. highways.

Also signing the letter were Paul Shaffer, band leader on The Late Show with David Letterman, actor Don Harron, former NHL coach Ted Nolan, and Fred Gilbert, president of Lakehead University. U.S. environmental advocate Robert Kennedy Jr. sent the minister a separate letter critical of the quarry.

The quarry project, proposed by Superior Aggregates Ltd., a U.S.-owned company, has engendered passionate feelings among environmentalists because the site lies on one of the most scenic parts of the imposing lake and it would be mined as close as 75 metres from the lake's shore.

Ms. Dombrowsky is awaiting a study on the impact of the project from ministry technical staff before deciding whether to require an environmental assessment, a step that would subject the proposal to in-depth public scrutiny.

Mr. Orr and the two Esposito brothers live in the United States, but they grew up along the Great Lakes in Parry Sound and Sault Ste. Marie, respectively, the connection that led to them to sign the letter.

In 2000, the three former hockey players volunteered to be "champions" of Ontario's "Great Lakes Heritage Coast," the name for a linear shoreline nature reserve the province had just established along the remaining wild tracts of Georgian Bay, Lake Huron and Lake Superior.

At the time, the players were part of a group of 20 prominent people the Ministry of Natural Resources recruited to be boosters of the lakes because they had been associated with the coastline in Northern Ontario in some way.

The group included artist Ken Danby, who got the puck rolling on the letter.

Mr. Danby was worried that he and his fellow group of so-called champions weren't speaking out publicly on the quarry, the most contentious development now slated for the Canadian side of Lake Superior. He began faxing and calling the others with a plea to speak out on the project.

Most artists wouldn't have gotten far with the hockey stars, but Mr. Danby is known for his frequent depictions of hockey and other Canadian themes.

He sent the others a proposal to write to the minister, and a pitch. "If we aren't willing to say something . . . we would be justifiably called hollow champions, so 'Lets put our voices where our persona is.' And that's what I did," he said.

All 20 of the people the province named as promoters of the lakes signed the letter. Mr. Berton, speaking of Superior, said its importance for Canadian history and geography made him sign the letter.

"It's an integral part of our heritage. Physically it's beautiful. Lake Superior is unique. That kind of mining should not be done."