When Carkner finally re-emerged into the stands at Canadian Tire Centre, he was met with big smiles and enthusiastic cheers. He touched the lives of many special needs children and their families over his three seasons in Ottawa; just one of the many charitable causes the Islanders tough guy continues to fight for.
“I was always raised to give back and try to help out in whatever way you can,” Carkner said. “With that status of being an Islander and being an NHL player, it makes it a bit easier. It’s not a lot that we are doing, but for my family and me it’s important that we learn to help others.”
In his three seasons with Ottawa, Carkner helped raise money and awareness for the Condors, a program that offers on-ice clinics to children with physical and mental disabilities. The program provides kids with a chance to learn and play hockey through personal one-on-one instruction and intra-squad games.
“Some of the kids – when I first met them – never were given an opportunity like this and they always had to watch their siblings go out and play on an organized team,” Carkner said. “So I love hockey and I love these kinds of causes and I just love how it makes the kids feel. I think it’s really special.”
Carkner’s relationship with the Condors began in his first season with the Senators, when the native of Winchester, ON – approximately a 45-minute drive from Ottawa – donated some equipment to the group. But Carkner wasn’t there just for a gear drop and photo shoot; he stayed around to meet the kids and fell in love with the program.
Carkner contacted Jim Perkins, President and Co-Founder of the Condors, and asked how he could help. He adopted an ambassador-type role, using his position in the NHL to raise the Condors’ profile in the community and raise funds at banquets, golf outings and other events.
“Jim is doing it from the bottom of his heart – he gives his whole life to the organization,” Carkner said of Perkins. “He is just a great human being, doing a great thing and it’s such a great organization to be a part of.”
My wife and I] wouldn’t be able to live up to Carks reputation, but we said we’d try our best. Everybody knows he’s such a good guy, down to earth, caring. If you go to any of the Condor’s skates, the kids still talk about him, love him and love watching him play. - Kyle Turris
Carkner brought the NHL closer to the special-needs kids, recruiting other teammates to come and help out at skates, as well as bringing them out to skate at professional venues, like the Canadian Tire Centre.
When Carkner arrived, the program had about 30 players, but has since expanded to three teams – in Kanata, Rockland and Cambridge, Ontario – with around 300 participants. There is a lengthy waiting list for parents trying to register their children.
Carkner had to say goodbye to the Condors when he signed with the Islanders in the summer of 2012, but quickly found a similar organization to support: the Long Island Blues. The Blues are one of 50 American Special Hockey programs across the country. Carkner plays a role similar to his early one with the Condors and is still in the process of getting to know the players. He gives a pair of tickets to a player and a parent for each Islanders home game, then takes them into the Islanders locker room to meet some of the players after the game.
“I feel like you get to know them better that way instead of just showing up to one event here and there,” he said. “I’m slowly getting a better feel for the Blues and I think Mike Russo and Neil Robbins do a fantastic job as well.”
As for the Condors, Carkner left the team in the hands of Kyle Turris, who is the team’s current honorary captain. Turris roomed with Carkner during his first season in Ottawa and heard him rave about his second team. Turris couldn’t refuse when the departing captain offered up the C.
“I heard him talk about it for months,” Turris said. “He called me one day and said, ‘you know I’m not going to be able to help out with the Condors anymore because I’m not in Ottawa, but would you like to take my spot?’ I said I’d love to.”
It didn’t take long for Turris and his wife, Julie, to catch Condor-fever. Julie Turris volunteers every Saturday, while he makes it to skates when the team isn’t travelling.
“My wife and I fell in love with the Condors and everyone involved,” Turris said. “Explaining it doesn’t do it justice. You just have to come to a skate and see and feel the energy and the love that’s really in the skates. It’s something else.”
Turris is also hosting a golf outing to raise money for the Condors on June 2 in Ottawa, doing his part to live up to the Carkner legacy.
“[My wife and I] wouldn’t be able to live up to Carks reputation, but we said we’d try our best,” Turris said. “Everybody knows he’s such a good guy, down to earth, caring. If you go to any of the Condor’s skates, the kids still talk about him, love him and love watching him play.”
Carkner's on-ice job couldn’t clash more with his off-ice personality. The 6’4, 227 lb. defenseman never hesitates to stand up for a teammate, but his big fists are dwarfed by an even bigger heart. Carkner has a history of good deeds, dating all the way back to his days in the American Hockey League. In 2006-07 he won the Yanick Dupre Award – colloquially known as the AHL Man of the Year Award – for outstanding contributions to his local community and charitable organizations.
“[Fighting] is part of my game and people see me as this big tough guy on the ice,” Carkner said. “But people quickly see I’m a pretty decent guy off the ice.”
Fans looking for more information about the Long Island Blues can find it on their official website, http://longislandblues.org/.