It can provide some of the most challenging – and yet rewarding – moments the Manitoba Moose will experience all season, but unlike the 80-plus battles they face on the ice, everyone comes out a winner at the hockey club’s annual Children’s Hospital visit.
Armed with stuffed animals, video games, and loads of festive enthusiasm, this year’s contingent of 22 players, two coaches, a handful of front-office staff, and one very-popular mascot brought holiday cheer to hospitalized kids and their families last Wednesday.
Kelly McArthur, Executive Director of The Manitoba Moose Yearling Foundation, the hockey club’s charitable arm, said the annual visit and toy distribution is a highlight of the year for kids and players alike.
“Since 1996 we’ve been involved with the Children’s Hospital of Manitoba, and it’s the visit that we look forward to every year,” she explained in the bustling hospital play room. “I know that it’s great for both sides. The kids absolutely love it. It gives them a break to not think about their illness for just a couple of hours – they can just concentrate on being a kid and having some fun.”
“For the players, I think it puts life in perspective a little bit. I know wins and losses are important but on that day they’re not as important. So I think it helps them realize how fortunate they are, and I think it’s a very humbling experience for a lot of them.”
According to Moose head coach Scott Arniel, the afternoon spent playing games in the playroom and touring the various hospital wards provides the opportunity to reflect on the true spirit of the season.
“We play a game as our profession, and it’s something that these players are lucky enough to be paid for and to do day in and day out,” he said. “I think that when they come here, they’re faced with the reality that there are people in this world that don’t have it as easy and are in tough situations. It makes everybody more grateful about what you have and what you get to do every day, and it’s a little bit of a reality check, coming to meet some of these kids.”
Though the visit is a “reality check” for Moose players and staff, it provides a much-needed break from reality for the hospital’s youngest patients. After welcoming the Moose group and delivering a few important messages on hospital hygiene and etiquette, Renee Ethans, Manager of the Children’s Hospital’s Child Life Department, praised the Moose players and the Yearling Foundation for their support over the years.
“The Yearling Foundation has been unbelievable from Day One when the Moose came to town. They’re the ones who started providing a lot of the more advanced electronics that we have, and they’ll bring us games and movies and portable DVD players, which are fantastic because when a child is going for a test, they now have a Nintendo game to play.”
“And it’s not just about Christmas for us,” she continued. “Kids have birthdays all year round, a discharge party if they’ve been in the hospital for three months or longer, and we always like to have gifts or prizes for them.”
In addition to distributing gifts to kids at the hospital, the Yearling Foundation donated over $5,000 to the hospital this year, including $2,500 earmarked for the “Sticker Program,” which recognizes children for their achievements during their hospital stay.
“After coming in for an invasive procedure, it’s pretty special to be able to give a child a sticker that says ‘I had a blood test today’ or ‘I saw my doctor’ or ‘ I’m a special kid,’ Ethans said. “It’s been fantastic, and everyone’s always clamoring for more stickers.”
From stickers to teddy bears to Guitar Hero, gifts of all kinds got plenty of play-time during the visit. In between craft projects with teammate Colby Genoway and a young patient named Andrea, Moose defenceman Shaun Heshka reflected on the visit.
“You always look forward to making a little kid’s day, especially around Christmas,” the 22-year-old said. “It puts your own life into perspective and how lucky you are. Seeing these little kids and how you can light up their day, it’s awesome. It’s very rewarding.”
To date, the Yearling Foundation has donated over $30,000 in gifts to the Children’s Hospital of Manitoba.