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The Verdict: A very important off-day

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

John Masson knew something was up Thursday when he and his wheelchair were summoned to the lobby of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He just never imagined how such a rainy afternoon could become an instant classic, just by turning a corner.

“Oh, man, is this unbelievable or not?” Masson crowed to nobody in particular. “The Blackhawks. This is why we fight. Because in the United States of America, people give back.”

John McDonough, the team president, said much the same thing. The defending Stanley Cup champions have not ever had, nor will they ever have, a more important off-day in their hockey careers. Friday, the Blackhawks will be at the White House, and Sunday, they will be on national TV against the Washington Capitals. But what the Blackhawks did Thursday, with their jerseys on and skates still on the bus, was no touristy sidetrip or made-for-TV drive through. This visit came from the heart, because the Blackhawks, for all their fame and swagger, get it. Those are McDonough’s words again, only he spoke while standing behind a podium. If only John Masson could.


Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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“I was a Sgt. 1st Class in Afghanistan,” he recalled. “Third time I’d been deployed over a period of 15 or so years. I knew as soon as I stepped on it, I was in big trouble. Oct. 16, 2010. An IED, or improvised explosive device. I was mangled, a mess. A lot of guys in that situation might have let go, or been let go for dead. I probably should be dead. But when the medics finally came around, I had just three words. ‘Please save me.’ My two legs are gone, so is my left hand. But here I am. And, there’s Patrick Kane. How about that?”

The Blackhawks’ front office, attentive as ever to details, sent stacks of sweaters and hats and shirts ahead for the wounded vets. The Stanley Cup showed, too, as did NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and an assortment of luminaries. But the essence of Thursday was evident when the players broke out in different groups, some heading to the rehabilitation center, others to the wards where exercise for some of the heroes is not possible, at least not yet. And they are heroes, just as surely as games are not wars. Yes, Wednesday night’s controversial shootout goal by Martin St. Louis that beat the Blackhawks still stings, but maybe just a little less now.

“You know, we think we make sacrifices,” said captain Jonathan Toews. “And then you come here and learn what real sacrifices are. These are such young people whose bodies have been changed forever. Yet their spirit is terrific. They don’t feel sorry for themselves. They just move on. I’ve learned a lot here today. It’s been amazing. I’ve never spent a day quite like this and I’m not going to forget it. I hope none of us will.”

Sgt. Masson certainly will not. He’s 39, father of three children—Jonathan, 15; Morgan, 9; Ethan, 7. He’s from Lake Station, Ind., where he met his wife, Dusty. John likes all Chicago teams except the White Sox, and in fact was fashioning a Cubs’ hat when he first arrived in the lobby. Before it was over Thursday, John had cleaned up. He was wearing a Stanley Cup ring that belonged to Jay Blunk, the Blackhawks’ executive vice president who has been instrumental in forging a bond between the franchise and the armed services. To that end, Blunk invited Masson to the United Center for the red carpet treatment during Jim Cornelison’s stirring Star-Spangled Banner, date to be named later.

“I think I’ll pick a playoff game,” said Masson, already sporting a playoff beard.

“Whatever you want,” said Blunk. “Now, can I have my ring back?”

Dusty Masson took this all in, smiling widely, without a change of expression.

“When I got the call John had been hurt, I didn’t know how bad,” she recalled. “All they said was, he’s still alive. He’s had maybe 15 surgeries and it will be a year, a year and a half, before he can walk with prostethics. But he’ll do it. Shortly before he got sent to Afghanistan, he was in Florida, watching the Blackhawks win the Cup. They were in Philadelphia, he was in some sports bar. He drives me crazy with his games. He’s going here Sunday to watch the Blackhawks in person. And now that he’s been asked to bring us all to Chicago…”

By all accounts, Thursday marked the first time the Stanley Cup had been brought to Walter Reed. Bettman couldn’t think of another occasion. Nor could anyone else. More significantly, perhaps, the warriors volunteered that their home away from home had never screeched to a halt quite like this. Ballplayers from visiting teams frequently drop by, and so do celebrities from other fields. The World Series and Super Bowl Trophy has been there. But as Dusty was saying, occasionally guests just park behind the glass partition and “wave or point to these men with no arms or legs.”

Then there were the Blackhawks, on the most important off-day of their hockey careers, diving right in to the party they helped energize. If any of the millionaire hockey players looked at a clock, it was only to confirm that time indeed flies when you are doing something that matters. Some jocks athletes stage these appearances as if they are double parked. The Blackhawks signed, posed, and stayed more than two hours.

“We did this,” concluded McDonough, “because it is the right thing to do. It is something we should all do, to appreciate the courage and patriotism of the men and women who defend our freedom to complain about little things we have no business complaining about in our lives.”

Wait. We have another Stanley Cup ring ceremony to report. John Masson has returned the jewelry to Jay Blunk. And here comes a goalie without his mask.

Corey Crawford?” said Masson. “You are awesome.”

“No,” countered Crawford. “You guys are awesome.”

There are athletes who figure out how to spend their money. And there are athletes who figure out how to earn it.
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