The trip from Bozeman, Montana to Columbus, Ohio is a long one — covering 1,500 miles, two time zones and a litany of flyover states. It’s a trip that 15-year-old Jessica Uithoven knows all too well. She’s made the long trek from Bozeman to Columbus (and back) five times since May.
Her time in Columbus is a whirlwind of doctor’s appointments, but the city has actually become a second home for Jessica and her mother, Louise, thanks in part to the Ronald McDonald House of Central Ohio located here in Columbus.
"We love it here, this is like a second home," said Louise. "If you can look forward to doctors' appointments because you know where you’re going stay... she’s sick, but we're actually having positive experiences while we’re here. It’s really cool."
The Columbus Ronald McDonald House is truly something special. Their mission is to provide free housing for families of sick children, and they do it well, serving more than 3,000 families every year. It’s the biggest Ronald McDonald House in the world, but for the Uithovens and many other families like them, it’s more than just a place to stay. It’s a place that fosters positive memories in trying times.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have a longstanding partnership with the Ronald McDonald House. This partnership manifests itself in the form of special projects, such as Blue Jackets-themed basement or the Princess Room, which looks like a Disney movie brought to life.
But one project really stands head and shoulders above the rest: what once was a normal stairwell is now a three-story, hockey-themed treehouse that was born from the 2015 NHL All-Star Legacy Project, an annual joint venture between the NHL and its host city for All-Star Weekend.
“It’s mind-blowing,” said Louise. “They really transformed it. You don’t just walk in and say ‘oh that’s just a staircase’ anymore. It’s just so cool, it’s like it was always meant to be like that."
Jessica also was also very impressed with the end result.
“It was really cool to see how they were painting it and to watch the murals grow,” she said. “It’s amazing in there, I don’t even know how you would think of using a staircase like that."
Like the other Blue Jackets projects in the Ronald McDonald House, the treehouse doesn’t just serve as a play space — it serves as a means to escape.
"You go in there and you forget that you’re in here for medical reasons,” said Jessica. "You can just go in there and play or climb around in it and it’s more like you’re in a treehouse than you in the Ronald McDonald House.
"It’s like you’re transported away."
The unveiling was a big event, complete with a frenzy of cameras, dozens of gleeful children and a whole flock of awe-struck media members. This is how NHL commissioner Gary Bettman kicked off All-Star Weekend in Columbus—with some help from players Nick Foligno, Patrice Bergeron and Jonathan Drouin.
"It was so nice to see the kids’ reactions, that was what I wanted to see," said Foligno. "I don’t think we had a second of actually talking with them because they were just so excited to play with everything."
The kids were excited to see the final result — so excited, in fact, that Bergeron couldn’t even keep up. So he sat on one of the treehouse's benches and took it all in.
"I was sitting on that bench for a while and I turned around and it said two-minute timeout so that was pretty funny.” said Bergeron. "I guess I needed that; I was getting pretty tired just watching the kids go up and down the tunnel."
"I’ll never look at a stairwell the same way again after seeing this one, all the other ones will be boring."
Perhaps nobody came away more impressed than Bettman.
"I had heard descriptions about it and I couldn’t imagine what it was that they had created in a stairwell. To say that it defies my imagination is easy,” said Bettman. “It boggles the mind when you see it, it is so well done. This is a testament to creativity.”
The treehouse is a part of the NHL’s All-Star Legacy Initiative. Whenever the NHL comes into a city for a major event, whether it’s for the All-Star Game, the Winter Classic or the Stadium Series, they leave something behind for the city. For the Bridgestone Winter Classic in Washington, D.C., the league refurbished a local street hockey rink and donated equipment. For last year’s Stadium Series, the NHL donated street hockey equipment to 50 schools across southern California.
But the creativity behind the legacy treehouse sets it apart—it was a truly unique endeavor for the league. Bettman noted that the Blue Jackets' relationship with the Ronald McDonald House made it an easy choice.
"We want to compliment when we come in to the city, the things that the Blue Jackets have done night in and night out and day in and day out they know how to be an important part of the community,” said Bettman. “We wanted to work with them on the things that made sense to them, this is their home and we’re happy to be sharing it with them this weekend."