Participating in the NHL Alumni Charity Poker Tournament is an experience Michael Dunbar will never forget, for a couple of reasons.
First, the obvious – the 38-year-old Mission resident had the opportunity to rub elbows with a collection of famous poker pros and hockey players at the made-for-TV event, which taped in Toronto in July and is currently airing on Sportsnet, Sportsnet360 and SportsnetOne.
From the poker world, superstars like Daniel Negreanu, Johnathan Duhamel and Vanessa Rousso were in attendance, joined by NHLers past and present including Theo Fleury, Denis Savard, Pat LaFontaine and Phil Kessel.
But for Dunbar, the event held added significance. Each participant chose a charity that they were playing for, and Dunbar picked the Canadian Cancer Society in honour of his father Paul, who was battling liver and bowel cancer at the time of the taping.
Tourney players were only slated to be in Toronto for three days, but the producers allowed Dunbar, a Sarnia, Ont. native, to delay his flight back to B.C. by a week in order to visit his dad.
“That was the last time I saw him alive,” said Dunbar, noting that his father passed away in November. “He was on my heart when I played [the poker tournament].”
Dunbar qualified for the event by surviving a series of freeroll tournaments on the online poker site Pokerstars, and was subsequently selected after submitting an audition video.
“I had my kids around the poker table with me and my wife was filming, and I basically said I was coming down there to kick their butts and they’d all better watch out,” Dunbar said with a chuckle. “I just went with some over-the-top aggression there.”
The tournament itself didn’t go quite as well as Dunbar might have envisioned. His six-player starting table also included Rousso, LaFontaine, Savard, Matthew Barnaby and Darcy Tucker, with the top two advancing to the final table. Dunbar finished sixth, losing the last of his chips with ace-six offsuit. Nevertheless, he earned $2,500 for the Canadian Cancer Society.
“The hand I went out on was my best hand I picked up in three hours of playing cards,” he said. “I’ve never been that card-dead in my life.
“Some things could have been better, but it could have been a lot worse, just like any poker game. I don’t think I made any mistakes.”
The entire experience was a thrill, though – Dunbar, a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, savoured the opportunity to meet current and past Leafs like Kessel, Tucker and Gary Leeman.
“The poker players, they were great to be around,” he said. “And as good as the poker players were, the hockey players, they were even better.”