Brenda Sawatzky

Nighthawks Gala a Resounding Success

Brenda Sawatzky

The Heritage Centre resonated with life and energy on February 10 as hundreds of attendees converged for the Niverville Nighthawks’ second annual fundraising gala. It was an evening chock full of events, including both a silent auction and live auction and a meet-and-greet with the team’s players and coaching staff.

Kevin Pauls, the voice of the Nighthawks, was joined on stage by former Winnipeg Jets forward Ray Neufeld for a one-on-one parley which delved deep into the highlights and low points of Neufeld’s illustrious hockey career.

Local renowned comedian Matt Falk kept the crowd in stitches throughout as he co-emceed the event alongside Pauls.

Nighthawks vice president Ray Dowse opened the formal portion of the evening by reminding attendees of the reason they were gathered there that night.

“There’s so many of you here tonight who have invested countless hours and dollars into so many [great causes],” Dowse said. “So why do we do that? Why do we coach, sit on boards, volunteer, or donate? Because it feels good when we contribute back to a community, sport, or purpose that has made a positive impact in our own lives and influenced who we have become.”

The Nighthawks is a community-owned non-profit organization that relies heavily on outside donations for support. According to Dowse, the team’s revenue split comes from three primary sources: 33 percent from ticket and gate sales, 33 percent from sponsorships, and 33 percent from fundraising initiatives such as the gala and golf tournament.

This year, though, the Nighthawks are needing additional funds to allow the team to erect a new bleacher seating system on the east side of the rink.

“The Nighthawks took on the work and all the financial responsibility for the installation of the new bleacher system,” Dowse said. “Upon completion, everything becomes the property of the Town of Niverville and available for the entire community to enjoy.”

The total anticipated cost, he said, will be around $530,000, of which $150,000 was still needed.

In order to make this happen, a variety of impressive items was auctioned off from the stage, including framed hockey jerseys, fly-in fishing adventures, a custom pair of CCM skates, and a stunning three-carat diamond donated by Mokada Custom Jewelry Design.

Also, Access Credit Union made a presentation of $10,000 to the Nighthawks team.

All eyes were on stage as Neufeld was grilled with questions posed by Pauls. The former NHLer grew up as a black child adopted into a white family in the town of Winkler. He never experienced the game of hockey firsthand until he was ten years old.

Thanks to a mother who recognized his early talent, Neufeld rose in the junior hockey world, eventually making his way into the Western Hockey League and then the American Hockey League before finally being drafted into the National Hockey League (NHL).

His NHL career began in 1979 with the Hartford Whalers.

Unfortunately for Neufeld, his early career was also plagued by an addiction to alcohol. Married and with a child on the way, Neufeld says that his first big wake-up call came when he recognized the magnitude of his responsibility to a wife and baby on the way.

He kicked the alcohol habit on his own, but things went downhill again when he was traded to the Winnipeg Jets, a trade he wasn’t happy with. Neufeld spent four years as a Jet before being traded again to the Boston Bruins and eventually finishing his hockey career with the Maine Mariners.

But it was his time with the Winnipeg Jets that Neufeld reflects on today as one of the most pivotal and important times of his life.

Falling hard off the wagon upon his arrival in Winnipeg, Neufeld says it was the friendships he made with team players like Laurie Boschman and Doug Smail that helped him find his way back. Today, Neufeld boasts 39 years of sobriety.

“A lot of times people ask me, ‘Was the trade worth it? Was it good for me to come to Winnipeg?’” said Neufeld. “And I can tell them with honesty that it was the best thing that ever happened to me, coming back to Manitoba and being a part of the Winnipeg Jets.”

Being a man of colour, Neufeld says that it wasn’t always easy being taken seriously in a world dominated by white hockey players in the 70s and 80s.

Today, to give back, Neufeld invests time in the NHL’s diversity and inclusion committee. He’s proud to say that the league is making some great strides in including a greater diversity of cultures and backgrounds.

Just recently, at a rink in Winnipeg where Neufeld volunteers, he couldn’t help but notice that the majority of young prospects on the ice were of Filipino descent, something that would have been unheard of in his younger years.

“It was the first time in 55 years of my life on the ice where there was more people of colour than white people, and I say hooray for the game,” Neufeld said. “Things are moving in the right direction.”

While still a fledgling team, the Niverville Nighthawks is backed by many supporters, including but not limited to their board of directors and team founders.

Nearly 100 volunteers and 20 billet families make it possible for this team of players, who hail from across Canada and the U.S., to live out their dream.

“This team has already been building its own identity and it’s contributing to the identity of the community,” Dowse said. “When they reflect on their time in Niverville, we want to be a positive stepping stone in their hockey career and their life path.”