Around the NHL, Dan Hinote is known as a gritty winger with a special talent for getting under the skin of opponents. He knows exactly what nerve to hit at precisely which moment to take someone's focus off the game. Rivals retreat to the penalty box, surrounding his name with an angry array of expletives.
Outside the game, Hinote remains a master of emotions, but elicits a different response in those he encounters through "Hinote's Heroes", a foundation that raises money to assist families of children with serious illnesses. Offering hope and encouragement comes as naturally to Hinote as triggering frustration on the ice, and it's a role he takes even more seriously.
"I'm a firm believer that morale is a big part of the recovery process," Hinote said. "So many times, I've given money to a charity and wondered where it goes or what it does. What we want to do with Hinote's Heroes is go in and change these people's lives today, by making an immediate impact and boosting morale. We provide an educational environment for them, transportation to a different housing area, laptops, beds and anything else that cannot only change the kids' lives, but also make it easier on the families as they go through such a difficult time."
Many athletes give back to the community with dollar signs and autograph signings. Hinote witnessed the concept of giving back modeled in a more significant way.
"When I first came into the League, I was roommates with Shjon Podein, who has a big children's foundation," Hinote explained. "I would go to his events and see the difference he was making in these kids' lives and realized I wanted to do something like that for a group of unfortunate people."
The vision came to life when Hinote's sister, Missy Christensen, moved to Denver in 2004.
"Dan was very much a part of my decision to move to Colorado," Christensen said. "When a job came up in the Bone Marrow Transplant at The Children's Hospital, I immediately called him and asked what he thought."
Hinote encouraged his sister, a pediatric nurse practitioner, to pursue the opportunity. Within months of her arrival in Colorado, the siblings joined with friend Jason Berrett to form Hinote's Heroes.
"When Dan told me one day that he would like to start a foundation to help the population I work with, I was amazed with his generosity," Christensen said.
Amazed, but not surprised. Munificence runs in the family.
"I would credit my parents very much for what we do," Hinote said. "We didn't grow up with a whole lot. Even then, my parents were always very giving and willing to help everybody else. Watching them, we realized material things aren't important and maybe self happiness isn't as important as helping others. Then you get self happiness from that. In the end, it's almost like I'm getting more out of the visit then the kids are. It almost sounds selfish."
Not quite. Not everyone can walk into a room with sick children and walk back out feeling inspired. Many would run the other way, if given the choice, then turn on a "reality" show like American Idol in attempt to chase the real images from mind. Hinote and Christensen are special because they are able to look at the situations they encounter through the eyes of the children and families they assist, rather than shutting their own.
"These kids didn't do anything wrong," Christensen said. "They just wake up one day with a devastating diagnosis and then their whole life changes. Instead of playing outside, they are here in clinic attached to an IV pole with chemotherapy. We want to help make this experience as pleasant for them and their families as we can, so that they don't look back and feel like they missed out on life."
Hinote and Christensen, who grew up in Elk River, Minnesota, were born a year apart and have always been close.
Hinote's charitable efforts began a few years back after seeing how much impact former teammate Shjon Podein had in the community.
"We have a friendship outside being siblings," Christensen said. "We have similar personalities and like to joke around and play practical jokes. Our mom says we've always been more like twins."
Since working together for this noble cause, they have only grown closer as the respect they've always had for one another rises to new levels.
"Missy and all the others who work in the hospital are so special, because sometimes it can be such a depressing thing and they're dealing with this every day," Hinote said. "Maybe the survival rates are only 30-40 percent, but that doesn't change them into robots. It's phenomenal what they do; I don't know that I could do it every day."
He is quick to credit his teammates and the Avalanche organization for the support they give to Hinote's Heroes. Kids who are healthy enough to leave the hospital and their families are given tickets to the games, where they get to see a different side of Hinote.
"Dan is sometimes described as a mosquito on the ice, the bug that gets in your head and just won't go away," Christensen said. "He is comfortable on the ice and also with the families here at the hospital. A lot of athletes or people that don't see what we see daily are uncomfortable and you can tell, but Dan is a natural. He's not intimidated by tubes, blood, baldness or chemotherapy. He enjoys the kids a lot and you can tell he is here because he wants to be and not for PR."
Hinote spoke about many children and families whose lives he has touched, but the stories recounted were all told from the narrator's perspective, as he reflected upon those who have inspired him.
"There was a boy named Phil I'd gone to see a few times," he said. "(Avalanche teammate) John Liles and I went to the hospital to give him a jersey he'd requested. When we got there, 12 or so family members were in there crying because they'd been told he'd relapsed and wasn't going to make it. And there he is, giving us the thumbs up. He's got all those tubes, but he's trying to be so tough, meanwhile you know he's not going to make it through the night. He took a picture for me with the jersey on, giving me the thumbs up. I have that in my room. After the game, I got a game puck to give to him, not knowing he'd passed away that night. Things like that stick with you for the rest of your life."
Hinote can't control his emotions on the way out of the hospital the way he can master an opponent's emotions on the ice.
"I don't know how," Hinote said. "I'm not very good at that part of it. I'm not very good at separating myself from that emotion. That part of its tough but I guess if you went around feeling like a robot your whole life, you would never feel any of the good things either. I'll take the good with the bad."
"I don't think Dan turns off the emotions he encounters here," Christensen said. "I think he uses that energy in the game to play harder, with more heart."