Tom Barnett has been around enough hockey locker rooms to know a good prank when he sees one. At least he thought he did.
So when he received a phone call at work last Friday informing him that he was the recipient of the inaugural Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Leadership, Barnett was all but certain that it was one of his hockey buddies pulling a fast one on him.
“I thought I was being Punk’d, like that MTV show,” Barnett said while driving home from Pittsburgh after receiving the award during the national telecast before Game 3 of the NHL Stanley Cup Final.
The Bridgestone Mark Messier Youth Leadership Award, which includes a $5,000 grant, was created to reward youth hockey players or mentors for their leadership and contributions to youth sports or education. More than 70 nominations were received for the award from across the United States and Canada.
“It’s mind boggling that my name is on the inaugural award,” said Barnett.
“The more I learned about the award after talking with Mark Messier, finding out that he personally read every one of the nominations and selected the winner, and then finding out that it’s an international award, I couldn’t believe that I won.”
Barnet founded the Shamrock Hockey Club in Buffalo, N.Y., which focuses on education, teamwork, community service and, just as importantly, having fun. The players are required to keep good grades, play as a team and give back to the community.
Through his leadership, the Shamrocks created a unique partnership with the Buffalo Zoo where players volunteer to work the zoo garden to produce edible plants, which are fed to the zoo animals. The program beautifies the zoo, feeds the animals and teaches the players valuable life lessons about the importance of giving back.
“We had so many impressive nominations for the award that it was difficult to choose a winner,” Messier said. “Coach Barnett really embodies the things that youth hockey should be about. He’s really an educator on skates who’s not only teaching young players how to be better players and teammates, he’s teaching them to be leaders both on and off the ice. He’s a very deserving recipient of the award.”
Barnett started the Buffalo Shamrocks organization in 2001 with 30 kids and declared the ‘Rocks season as October through, of course, St. Patrick’s Day.
“Hockey is a winter sport,” he told NHL.com. “We want kids to do other things in the off-season, like ride a bike, play baseball or take walks with your family.”
That philosophy, teamed with the belief that every kid deserves a chance to play and succeed, has helped the program grow. This season the Shamrocks have expanded to more than 300 players and 40 coaches.
“The program is all about family, and it’s all about kids,” Barnett said. “We have created a culture of happiness and togetherness. Everyone involved is pulling on the oars at the same speed.”
Barnett drove to Pittsburgh with his wife and sons, attending the morning skate before Game 3 on Tuesday, meeting hockey notables such as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and TV personality Don Cherry.
“I was treated like I won the Nobel Prize,” he said.
He also spent time with Messier sharing stories and their philosophies of how a youth hockey organization should be run.
“This underscores what youth hockey and grassroots hockey and USA hockey is all about. It ‘s nice to be acknowledged by someone who is as respected as Mark Messier – The Captain,” said Barnett.
“You definitely don’t do it for the accolades or the awards. There have been so many people who have emailed, texted or called to congratulate me. It’s really not about me, it’s about the kids and the program.”