Steve McNeil is a rolling thunder, a pouring rain, he’s coming on like a hurricane as he skates for 19 hours and 26 minutes to raise money and awareness for the Alzheimer Society – fuelled only by the music of AC/DC and the memory of his late mother, Eunice McNeil.
Alzheimer’s disease robbed McNeil of years with his mother, so now he holds National 1926 Skate Day for Alzheimer’s each year on her birthday, Dec. 15.
The 19 hours and 26 minutes on the ice represent her birth year, 1926. This will be the 10th year holding the marathon skate and he will be skating in 10 cities across Ontario. He held the initial marathon skate in Toronto on Dec. 15 and will stop at Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake on Jan. 26.
Due to the most recent COVID-19 measures, some of his dates are postponed, but Judy Brandow, McNeil’s “right-hand,” says Gretzky’s is still in the books to proceed as scheduled. Though new regulations might delay some of his dates, he says he plans to try to ensure he reaches them all.
“That's always been my goal, just like any hockey player – they get up, they get on a good team and they just want to make the team better and play better each time they get out there. It’s the same thing with me,” McNeil says. “It's just a hockey player mentality.”
“Basically, how it started was coming up with an idea of paying tribute to my mom because even though she couldn't say my name, and she just had that clouded look while in the fetal position at that point of her life, I still knew she knew who I was,” he says.
McNeil dreamed up the idea for a marathon skate while refereeing a recreational hockey game, something he has been doing for nearly 40 years.
At that time, McNeil says his mother was still alive in a nursing home and had been battling Alzheimer’s for the better part of 20 years. He held his first skate on Dec. 15, 2012. She died in February 2013.
The skate has evolved each year, bringing more awareness, raising more money and more locations are visited. The inaugural first date in 2012 was at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto.
“I only told two people that I was doing it, that was my wife and Rob Ford, who was the mayor at the time, just to make sure that I could stay on the rink all night,” McNeil says.
The second year, he decided to grow the dream to try to do more for the Alzheimer Society.
“That's when friends and family convinced me to maybe start turning it into a fundraiser,” he says.
McNeil encourages people to donate money to their local Alzheimer Society in their own communities.
“Each community I go to, I skate for that community but at the same time, I'm always encouraging people anywhere just to donate to their local Alzheimer's at any time,” he says.
In 2018, McNeil skated in each of the seven Canadian National Hockey League team cities, and in 2019, he crossed the country skating in 11 cities in nine provinces. In 2021, with the coronavirus pandemic in full swing, McNeil says he thought he might need to cancel the skate altogether.
But Gretzky's contacted him with the help of the Alzheimer Society of Ontario “and they invited us out there to use what I classify as Wayne's ice in his winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” he says.
“I’ve got to say, for 39 years I've been a recreational referee. I refereed thousands and thousands of hockey games at every possible level you could probably think of and one of my biggest thrills was being able to step on that ice last year.”
McNeil will have three things with him for each of his 10 skate dates.
He will listen to the music of AC/DC to give him the energy to presevere throughout the nearly 20 hours of non-stop skating. He will be holding his “Thunderstick,” a prop used since his first skate to provide support on the ice and a little air guitar throughout the night.
And he will be wearing a yellow hoodie, which he hopes to have signed by anyone and everyone, including local hockey teams, to donate to auction to raise even more money for the Alzheimer Society.
To donate, visit 1926skate.com and money will be directed to your local Alzheimer Society.