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Not just a visit, but the start of a lasting bond

by Alison Lukan / Columbus Blue Jackets

To say the Blue Jackets visited Nationwide Children’s Hospital earlier this month would be an understatement. It was far more than merely a visit – for everyone involved.

As part of an annual trip to the hospital, the players ride together, take a group photo in the hospital lobby and deliver gifts to the children and families undergoing treatment.

But what comes after that is what really matters.

“It’s easy to walk through the halls and say ‘hello,” said Jody Shelley, team broadcaster and ambassador. “But to see people who really get down on the kids’ level and interact impressed me. It takes a special person to make any kind of relationship with complete strangers out of the goodness of their heart.”

And that’s how Dalton Prout ended up exchanging a series of fist bumps with a young girl at Nationwide Children’s. Prout loves being around kids, so when he met Maddie, he offered her a high-five.

“She said ‘be careful, I’ve got to be careful for germs,” Prout said. “I said ‘how about a fist bump?’ and extended my fist, and she said “squirrel’s going to get you’ and she tickled my arm (like a squirrel crawling). It was pretty cute.”

The two went back and forth for a while longer. Being around kids can put you at ease, Prout said, and he hopes he returned the favor for Maddie and also for a local high school hockey player, Joey Mechling, who he spent some time with.

“It’s so humbling and so uplifting that when you see a kid look at you and they light up,” Prout said. “It brings our spirits up. I remember being (a young hockey player) and an NHL player would talk to us. I can see that same twinkle in their eye when they look at us.”

Prout said the wear and tear of hockey practices and games instantly disappears when you spend time with these kids.

PHOTO GALLERY: BLUE JACKETS VISIT NATIONWIDE CHILDREN'S

That may be part of the reason that he, along with his teammates, organize a few additional visits to Nationwide Children’s on their own throughout the year.

And those visits, along with the official team visit, continue to feed the relationships the players have with children and their families who are facing some pretty serious circumstances.

Last season, Ryan Johansen visited the hospital and met a young boy named Sullivan (he goes by “Sully”), who instantly impressed the Jackets’ center with a personality Johansen described as “having fun and enjoying life.”

The young cancer patient gave Johansen one of his “Team Sully” orange wristbands, something that Johansen still wears today, and his family wrote letters that Johansen has on his refrigerator.

The two briefly reconnected towards the end of last season, and Johansen followed Sully on Twitter to stay up-to-date with his progress.

On this occasion, Johansen and his teammates were on their way out of the hospital when he heard that Sully was in the building.

Johansen didn’t hesitate to head back in and visit with his friend.

“It’s awesome seeing him grow and working through the process,” Johansen said. “I talked with his dad, and you could see how high their spirits are. It was great I got to see him and help cheer him up a bit more.”

And while Sully didn’t mention the orange band still prominently on Johansen’s wrist during their visit, it serves as a gateway for the player to talk about the young cancer patient who approaches every day trying to have fun in everything he is doing.

“When people ask (about the wristband), I tell them about Sully,” Johansen said. “It’s important – I’m trying to spread his story. I love seeing him to see how he’s going through his stages and being a kid and overcoming his adversity.”

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the hospital, wherever there was a Blue Jacket, a relationship was growing. A young patient promised Cam Atkinson she would cheer for him on the ice.

“She told me she watches a little bit of hockey,” Atkinson said. “I asked what I could do to make her day better and she said score me a goal.”

Atkinson says his game winning goal on Tuesday against the New Jersey Devils was for her.

And as the groups of Jackets wrapped up their afternoon at Nationwide Children’s, they ended up leaving a lot more than toys and autographs, they had built the beginnings of friendships.

“You realize you were impacting young people that are going through things that they don’t really understand,” Shelley said. “They don’t know why they are there they don’t know what’s going on in their life, it’s not what they planned.

“It’s pretty amazing to make sure you go there, because it really does make a difference.”

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