It’s the most tragic event of his life, but Travis Hamonic has built the experience of his late father’s passing into his daily routine. He’s learned to draw strength and inspiration from the memory, and now he’s helping others who have gone through similar circumstances do the same.
During every Islanders game at Nassau Coliseum, the defenseman invites a young fan who has lost a parent or loved one to be his “D-partner of the game.” The Islanders partner with local bereavement groups such as Tuesday’s Children and the New York Police and Fire Widows and Orphans Foundation to select Hamonic’s guest for each game.
The D-partner gets special VIP treatment for the night, including the chance to high five the players as they go on the ice and the chance to sit in Hamonic’s personal seats for the game. After the game, Hamonic invites his new line-mate to the Islanders dressing room to hang with other Islanders players, take pictures and collect autographs.
“It’s rewarding to be able to hang out with these kids and their family members or guardians,” Hamonic said. “When you meet the kids, they’re very excited. One of the boys who was here was 10 years old and lost his dad when he was eight. He was at one of our last games with his mom. That one struck a chord because his story resembled mine a lot.”
The youngest of four growing up on the family farm in St. Malo, MB, Hamonic was 10 years old when his father lost his life to a sudden heart attack. Years later, the memory of what Hamonic calls “the most difficult thing I’ve had to go through” is still fresh in his mind.
“It was the middle of harvest, September 15,” Hamonic said. “We had no idea it was coming. It was the middle of the night and it was the worst thing I could have ever woken up to in my life. For some reason, it happened. But here I am today, 12 years later, and I have an opportunity to tell my story and just try to open a door for a young kid growing up.”
Although hockey was always big in the Hamonic family, there was no NHL team in nearby Winnipeg at the time. Most years, the closest the city got to NHL action was an annual preseason tilt between two big-league clubs. Just a few weeks after his father’s death, Hamonic and his mother attended an exhibition game between Edmonton and Vancouver, which proved therapeutic.
The game soon became a tradition, as well as a source of healing for the Hamonics.
“Every year after that, we’d go to an exhibition game together and it was just a great opportunity for her and I to get out from our normal setting and spend an evening together.”
I think it was a team effort to guide me along. I’m grateful to God that things have played out the way they did and even more so that I have the support of my family around me. - Travis Hamonic
For Hamonic, the local rink became a haven, helping him persevere through his loss. Not all of Hamonic’s D-partners are avid hockey fans, but most of them already appreciate the role sports can play in the healing process.
“That was my form of therapy,” Hamonic said. “We had a great hockey program in St. Malo where I grew up. I would cut the ice for two hours every day after school. I grew up as the youngest of four kids. My brother and two sisters are several years older than me so when my dad passed away, I was definitely the baby of the family, and I think it was a team effort to guide me along. I’m grateful to God that things have played out the way they did and even more so that I have the support of my family around me.”
No two of Hamonic’s D-partners have the same story. They’ve all experienced different circumstances; some have large families, others small. Some lost a parent recently, while for others, the loss was years ago. Hamonic learns each child’s story first hand, taking time to exchange memories and even old photos throughout the locker room tour.
Hamonic’s mother, three siblings and many more in the community pitched in to fill the void that was left in his life. Looking back, he has a profound appreciation for those who stepped up for support. That’s a message he wants his D-partner of the game to understand.
“These kids have to appreciate their parents,” Hamonic said. “I’m a little bit older and now I have a chance to look back on my childhood and realize what my mom did for us four kids, how much work and how much effort she put in and what a special lady she was. I think those kids are going to grow up and feel that way about the parent who’s still with them now.”
The 22-year-old still makes his dad a part of his pre-game routine every time he takes the ice.
“I stand on the blue line and I say my final prayer before the game,” Hamonic said. “The last thing I ask is for God to let my dad have the best seat in the house. That’s watching down over me. There’s a spot in the rink in St. Malo where he would always stand, in the top-left corner of the rink. Every last moment before a game starts, I look up in the top-left corner of the rink and I just picture him standing there watching me.”
Hamonic doesn’t try to forget the past – he embraces it. He proudly wears several tattoos as a memorial to his dad, including one on his left bicep of the family farm in St. Malo and one on his right forearm bearing his father's signature.
In a way, Hamonic re-lives the biggest challenge he ever conquered after every home game with his D-partners and their families. He doesn’t hide from what happened – the stories are real, just as they are for each of his guests.