The Blackhawks had told the Handley family of Aurora, Ill., they were being granted an all-access tour of the Hawks' practice facility on Tuesday because their son, U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. George Handley, wouldn't be home for Christmas.
What they didn't know was that he was already home, courtesy of the Blackhawks -- who with help from the Illinois USO arranged for a surprise reunion with his family on Tuesday at Johnny's Ice House West after practice.
Unbeknownst to the Handleys, who thought George was still in Okinawa, Japan, George was hidden away in a back room. After being led into the Hawks' locker room by captain Jonathan Toews and forward Patrick Kane, the Handleys saw the large media contingent -- which probably gave something away.
Regardless, it didn't make what happened next any less touching. George Handley walked through a back door in the room wearing a bright red No. 10 Hawks sweater with his name on the back instead of his Marine Corps dress uniform.
Blackhawks surprise Military family
"I think it's awesome," Toews said. "I'm excited to see my little brother for Christmas and have him come see me in Chicago. I can't imagine how it must feel for a guy like George to come home unexpectedly and have his brothers and sisters almost in tears when he walked into the room here."
It was quite a whirlwind event for Handley.
"I didn't plan on coming home until 2012," said Handley, who hadn't seen his family in seven months. "That's a (long time) from now, so, I'm happy. It's a great present."
The surprise visit started with the Hawks, who sent word to the Illinois USO that they wanted to bring a soldier home for Christmas. The Illinois USO took it from there.
An essay-writing contest was held where Handley is stationed to determine the lucky winner, and Handley found out it was him on Sunday -- his 20th birthday.
Handley wasn't a big Blackhawks or hockey fan, but recently got into a fantasy hockey league run by his staff sergeant. He has no Blackhawks on his fantasy team, but vowed to fill it with Hawks next season after the Hawks paid his way home by putting him on a plane early Tuesday.
He arrived at O'Hare International Airport at 7:50 a.m. CT, and met up with the team shortly after.
"This all started last Thursday," said Anthony Enrietto, President and Chief Operating Officer of the Illinois USO. "For him to be standing in front of us here on Tuesday is quite an impressive task."
The Blackhawks also make honoring military service a big part of the game-day experience. They have active service members and veterans stand on the ice during the singing of the national anthem and then spotlight those soldiers and vets on the scoreboard screens during the game.
The crowd always gives them a standing ovation and players -- often from both teams -- bang their sticks on the ice or against the boards.
"Every game, I think it's cool to have veterans and people who've served in one way or another (honored)," Toews said. "For us to have a chance to meet those people and get a firsthand experience here is pretty awesome."
Enrietto said Handley's visit may have stemmed from the impression those in-game salutes leave on players.
"Patrick and Jonathan both said to the Hawks, 'We want to bring a solider home for Christmas that isn't going to get a chance to do so (otherwise),'" Enrietto said. "The Blackhawks contacted the USO of Illinois and we were able to make it happen. The Blackhawks are just phenomenal."
Emmitt Handley, George's father, couldn't agree more. Though his family rarely watches hockey, he was thrilled to don a knit Blackhawks winter hat on Tuesday -- when he took home one more son than he expected when the day began.
"We didn't think we were going to see him for a while," he said. "It's a wonderful thing. It brought a tear to my eye, so I enjoyed it. It was a nice Christmas present."