If endorsements from hockey hall of famers count, Patrick Brown might have the Ontario Progressive Conservative leadership race in the bag.
On Thursday Brown, the MP for Barrie, was joined in Thunder Bay by 700-goal scorer Mike Gartner, marking Brown’s ninth venture to Northern Ontario since joining what’s now a two-person contest in the hunt to take the party reins from former leader Tim Hudak.
Gartner is the third high-profile hockey star to back Brown, a list that Includes the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, and former Winnipeg Jets superstar Dale Hawerchuk.
Brown says unlike Hudak, who refused to attend a Northern leaders debate in Thunder Bay prior to losing the 2014 provincial election, he plans to put particular emphasis on Ontario’s North, calling it an integral part of the province’s future.
It’s not a region to be ignored, Brown said, adding it can’t be the same old leadership that led the Conservatives through four losing elections since 2003.
“Normally leadership candidates might show up once, as a ceremonial visit,” Brown said of his repeated visits to the region.
“I’ve been coming back here regularly because I believe there is a Conservative audience here in Northern Ontario. I just believe our party didn’t tap into it.”
Brown promised, if elected leader of the Conservatives and then premier of the province, to be here regularly.
“Because I believe Northern Ontario has the same concerns that I have over hydro prices, over the lack of an economic plan, over missing infrastructure to help transportation corridors in terms of getting products to the marketplace and the actual interest in enjoying our outdoors,” Brown said.
“There is a Conservative message I want to see all around Northern Ontario and that’s why I’m on a tour of the Northwest of Ontario … And I’ll be back often.”
Gartner, who started his NHL career with Washington and also had stints with the New York Rangers, Minnesota North Stars, Phoenix Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs en-route to 708 career goals, plays hockey regularly with Brown.
It’s Brown’s attitude on the ice that convinced Gartner to throw his support behind the candidate, who will face off against Christine Elliott early next month when the leadership conference begins on May 3.
“Patrick is such an intense competitor out there, I thought if he can be that competitive and have not bad skills as a hockey player and get a lot of results, then as a politician he’s proven he can be just as tenacious.”
MPP Toby Barrett also joined Brown’s travelling entourage.
Barrett, first elected nearly 20 years ago, said the party needs a fresh perspective and a fresh start, which he believes can happen under Brown.
“We need a reboot and Northern Ontario cannot handle another three or five years of what’s going on right now with the present provincial government.”