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Best buddies

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

There are a million and one ways to spend a day in Nashville and Dan Hamhuis has experienced them all.

The Canucks defencemen patrolled the blueline for the Predators for six seasons before coming to Vancouver, so places like the Grand Ole Opry aren’t so grand to him anymore.

This past Wednesday, in between Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Semifinal, the Canucks held an early afternoon practice before players explored the Music City.

Not Hamhuis, he met up with a dear friend instead.

An old Predators teammate? A Tennesee Titans player? A country music star?

Nope, Hamhuis spent the afternoon with his buddy Clay Butler, a 23-year-old living with Down syndrome that Dan met through Best Buddies Tennessee four years ago.

“We were just out chillin’,” said Clay, a hockey fan who was sad when Dan signed with Vancouver last summer. “I don’t put skates on, I don’t know how to skate, but we’re friends.”

Clay may not play hockey, but he’s on a swim team, tennis team and basketball team.

“We went for a snack and had some pizza,” said Hamhuis, “then we went over to the YMCA and played basketball. He’s a three-point specialist, he stands outside the arc, I feed him the ball and he drains it.”

It’s true, Clay, who grauated from Hillsboro High School in 2008, is a local legend at the YMCA not only for his sparkling personality, but for his prowess from downtown. He once hit nine of 10 thee-pointers at a Vanderbilt basketball camp and he regularly struts his stuff at the Y.

Clay’s got skills, and thanks to Hamhuis, he’s also got a positive male figure in his life.

The 27-year-old from Smithers, BC, who is married with two young daughters, first heard about Best Buddies Tennessee through word of mouth and he was urged to get involved by Nashville coach Barry Trotz, whose son Nolan has Down syndrome.

According to their website, Best Buddies is a "nonprofit organization dedicated to one-to-one friendships, integrated employment and leadership development for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities."

Hamhuis attended a Best Buddies fundraiser and he walked away convinced he could make a big difference in the life of someone with special needs.

Susan Gray, Clay’s mother, sees the difference Hamhuis is making everyday.

“Clay talks with pride about him and about getting to visit him,” said Susan. “Just having something to look forward to, that’s big. Looking forward to stuff is as important as actually doing it and getting a pro player coming to the Y to see you, it’s just amazing.”

While Hamhuis played for Nashville, Clay was a regular both at games and in the locker room post-game, especially after tough losses. Although the Predators have been solid at home over the past few seasons, losing streaks were unavoidable and Clay was always there to keep everything in perspective.

“No matter if we won or lost, the boys were always really excited to see him,” said Hamhuis. “We had a few bad losses there and he’d come in the dressing room and everyone would be smiling again; it’s amazing how fast he can make you forget about stuff like that.”

When Vancouver visited Nashville in late March of this season, Susan and Clay couldn’t have been more excited to watch Hamhuis play, but an injury suffered the game prior to facing the Predators held him out the lineup.

That didn’t disappoint Clay as much as you’d think as Hamhuis was able to join him in a suite at Bridgestone Arena to watch the game, before Clay was taken to a new dressing room to meet a new group of guys.

“I am delighted Dan kept in touch, but that is so like him,” said Susan. “I knew we’d still talk to him a bit and exchange Christmas cards, but I’m just happy that he’s stayed in touch so much. I’m not surprised; he’s such a wonderful family man, that’s just who he is.”

Clay isn’t the only benefactor in this relationship though, Hamhuis gets just as much out of it. While he introduced Susan and Clay to hockey, they took him to his first college basketball game, a memory dear to everyone.

Hamhuis looks forward to seeing his buddy just as much as Clay does.

“It’s really rewarding being around him, he’s a real simple guy and just the littlest things make him happy,” said Hamhuis. “It’s inspiring to be with him and see how he lives life, he brings a smile to everyone’s face everywhere he goes.

“I feel pretty lucky to be able to hang out with him.”

Turns out it doesn’t matter how you spend a day in Nashville, if you spend it with the right person.

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