HAZELWOOD, Mo. - Meet Brayden Johnston.
He’s seven years old and he looks like any other young player attending his first hockey camp. His helmet is strapped tight, his skates are laced, and as he steps onto the ice for the day’s practice session, he falls down more often than he’d like you to see.
But if you see him fall, it’s no big deal. He’ll laugh with you and get up, brush the snow off his pads, then try again.
What you wouldn’t notice is that Brayden is dealing with something no child should ever have to experience: he’s growing up without his dad.
That’s because his dad served nine years as a staff sergeant in the United States Air Force, and one day while on assignment overseas, he passed out and was eventually diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a disorder of the heart’s electrical system that affects between 0.1 and 0.3 percent of the population. In 2012, with movers working to help the family relocate to Colorado for his next assignment, Matt Johnston died from sudden cardiac arrest.
Brayden was only three years old.
Since then, life hasn’t exactly been easy on the Johnstons. It’s a challenge for Brayden’s mom, Crystal, to make ends meet these days, especially now that her son has started playing hockey with the Affton Americans. Already an expensive sport, sending Brayden to the Blues Youth Hockey Camp was a financial decision that was pretty much out of the question.
One day, while volunteering at a fundraiser for Fallen Hero’s Dream Ride - a charity organization that supports families who have lost loved ones on active duty - Crystal was introduced to Blues Captain David Backes and Blues Video / Skill Development Coach Sean Ferrell, both of whom were attending the fundraiser.
Suddenly, Blues Youth Hockey Camp became a reality.
“Being a military family ourselves with two boys in the armed services…the light bulb went off,” Ferrell said. “I thought, I’m going to be running a youth hockey camp later in the summer. What better chance for me to give back? So I invited Brayden to come out to camp and participate.”
Ferrell paid the camp registration fee and Brayden spent five days at the Blues’ official practice facility last week. He was on the ice for 90 minutes each day and even dressed in the team’s locker room - the same place where his favorite player, Vladimir Tarasenko, gets ready for the team's daily practices.
By Friday, his improvement wasn't only noticeable - it was drastic.
“Brayden has had so much fun here,” Crystal said after the last on-ice session. “Every day when he comes home, he shows me his push-ups and his stretching. This morning, he told me he didn’t need me to come to the locker room, that he had it under control because that’s where the boys go.
“It’s good for him to be around other boys and men who give him attention,” Crystal added. “Those are the things his daddy would do if he could.”
“The amazing thing is he is so new to the game that the smiles are almost automatic,” Ferrell said. “He started out being able to motor around the ice a little bit. By the end of the week, he says ‘Hey Coach, I can skate faster.’ He’s showing me the things we were teaching him throughout the week. It’s absolutely rewarding for me and hopefully he gets a lot out of it, too.”
Brayden inherited his love of the Blues from his father. When stationed outside of St. Louis, Matt always purchased the NHL Center Ice package so he could watch Blues games from afar. Matt took Brayden to his first hockey game at Scottrade Center when he was just two months old.
As it turns out, the game of hockey and a passion for the Blues are helping him cope with a difficult situation. Just seeing one of his big smiles on the ice during camp is enough to tell you that.
“It’s priceless,” Crystal said. “I’m very grateful. Sean extended his kindness and helped Brayden with hockey camp. Taking the time to give him this opportunity to improve his skills, its amazing and I really appreciate it.”
“It’s amazing sometimes - the resilience of families with the proper support,” Ferrell said. “Being able to do things for other people and give back, I think that truly helps. Brayden has had a smile on his face every day. It’s good to see.”
Fallen Hero's Dream Ride was established after the death of LCpl Phillip Vinnedge, who was killed in action while serving in Afghanistan. Vinnedge once vowed to find and restore a classic Chevy truck but was unable to fulfill that dream. Fallen Hero's Dream Ride restored a 1951 Chevy Pickup to educate and build awareness of the sacrifices made by members of the military and their families. The organization's primary mission has evolved to support children who have lost a parent in the military. To learn more, visit fallenherosdreamride.org.