39: Hockey Heroes Off the Ice

39: Hockey Heroes Off the Ice

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Hooked on Hockey

Hockey Heroes Off the Ice

It takes generosity to discover the whole through others. If you realize you are only a violin, you can open yourself up to the world by playing your role in the concert.

~Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Though I lived in Buffalo, one of the most hockey-crazed cities in America, I wasn’t much of a fan of the game. Sure, I would watch occasionally, following it enough to have the obligatory water-cooler conversation at the office, but I was a casual fan at best.

All that changed the day I met D.J.

My six-year-old daughter had been sick for a few months, with doctors unable to diagnose what ailed her. They sent us to a specialist for testing at the local children’s hospital. I was a nervous wreck. How would I stay strong? How could I put on a brave face when I was terrified of the process? As it turned out, I didn’t have to.

Once we arrived at the hospital we were ushered into a waiting room and it was there that we met D.J. Based on his stature, I pegged him for nine or ten years old. Later, I would find out that a rare genetic disease had stopped his growth and he was almost fourteen.

Almost immediately, D.J. came over and began to talk to us. He talked about the hospital. He talked about the medical procedures Zoey was about to have. He explained to her what the hospital room was like and he told her not to worry.

D.J. shared his story too. Among the many medical problems he has experienced in his young life, he had endured a kidney transplant the year before. He raised his shirt to show off the tubes protruding from his rib cage.

After a year of working well, his body was now rejecting his new kidney. There were problems with his liver too and things did not look good. That last part we never heard from D.J., but rather from his mom. He was too busy smiling, laughing and telling us, with absolute confidence, that the doctors would figure it out and fix him up.

Here I was an absolute wreck, and this boy, who was taking dozen of pills every day to stay alive, who was living a life of absolute uncertainty, couldn’t stop smiling. It was contagious, it was inspirational, and it was just what we needed.

At one point in the conversation, talk turned to hockey. D.J. was a diehard Sabres fan and he lit up as he talked about his favorite players. He had three — Patrick Kaleta, because “he is a fighter like me,” he said; Nathan Gerbe, because “we are both so small,” he joked; and Jhonas Enroth, the team’s back-up goaltender at the time.

We talked hockey for a bit, me bluffing my way through with the little bit of knowledge I had, and then a nurse arrived at the door, announcing it was time for D.J. to go.

Forty-five minutes later, D.J. and his family popped back into the room. His visit was done, but they wanted to say goodbye to Zoey, to show her that he was okay and she would be too. It was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever been part of, watching those two children sharing that moment.

We eventually saw the specialist and were discharged from the hospital, but I couldn’t get D.J. out of my head. I felt like I wanted to do something for him to show my appreciation for everything he had unknowingly done for me.

Through my job, I knew a woman who was an attorney, but also served on the board of directors for Sabres forward Patrick Kaleta’s HITS Foundation. I thought if I called in a favor, maybe she could get D.J.’s favorite player to sign a photo I could give to him, a token of my appreciation and admiration of him.

Audrey said she would check in with Patrick, and was sure she could get a signed photo. Little did we know what would really transpire.

I got a call from her later that week. She told me that she had shared D.J.’s story with Patrick, and he was so moved he wanted to meet D.J. personally. I was shocked.

We worked out the details and a few days later, D.J., his mom, dad, and an uncle met me downtown. D.J. had no idea why he was coming. As we chatted in a conference room, Audrey knocked and called me into the hall. Patrick was there and it was time for D.J. to meet one of his heroes. But there was more. Not only did Patrick Kaleta take time out of his schedule to visit, he brought Nathan Gerbe, one of D.J.’s other favorite players, with him!

As we walked back into the conference room and D.J. looked up, it was a moment I will never forget. The look on his face was magical. Patrick and Nathan sat with him and once the shock wore off, the three began talking hockey. Patrick brought him a Sabres jersey, hats, and photos, and signed everything. It was incredible to watch while these two professional athletes stepped out of their lives and gave so selflessly to this young boy. Watching D.J., it was clear that for those few minutes his health was the last thing on his mind. Sure, he was just as sick as the day before, but thanks to these two hockey players, he was given a brief respite from the challenges he faced.

But Kaleta wasn’t done. As they prepared to leave, he invited D.J. to be his guest in the locker room after the Sabres’ next home game. None of us in the room knew what to say, but the smile on D.J.’s face said it all.

Though the Sabres lost the game that night, Patrick Kaleta scored a goal early in the second period. Instead of skating off to the bench, he paused, collected the puck and saved it. Despite losing a hard-fought battle, not only did he bring D.J. and his family into the locker room, but he presented him with that puck, posed for pictures and introduced him to U.S. Olympic goaltender and teammate Ryan Miller and D.J.’s other favorite player Jhonas Enroth.

D.J. left the arena that night with both Miller’s and Enroth’s signed goalie sticks, as well as sticks from a half dozen other players. As he continued to fight for his life battling a disease that at times appeared to be winning, for one afternoon in that conference room and later for one night in a National Hockey League locker room, D.J. forgot about it all and was just a thirteen-year-old hockey fan living out his dream.

As I read about athletes getting arrested, refusing to sign autographs, and making outrageous contract demands, I think of Patrick Kaleta and what he did for a young man he had never met. His willingness to use his celebrity, to take his talent on the ice and use it to touch the life of a boy in need was awe-inspiring.

I may not have been much of a hockey fan before that season, but seeing the character and quality of these athletes, and what they were willing to do to help a child, sold me.

~Matt Chandler

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