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Holiday Toy Shopping Extravaganza

by Brittany Cole / New York Islanders
It’s not uncommon for a shopper to hit the mall or the toy store as the sun is coming up during the holiday season. Wednesday morning,  the Islanders players were not sharing the story of the usual shopper. After returning home through the night after a 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres, the Islanders  hit Toys “R” Us in Carle Place at 7 a.m. to embark on a shopping spree from the heart.

“We’ve been visiting hospitals for years, but over the past few years, we’ve really expanded the program,” said Islanders Community Relations Manager Ann Rina. “It was brought to my attention that the players not only wanted to distribute toys (during the hospital visits), but they also wanted the chance to pick out the items. It really grew last year, and we had a tremendous group of guys participate this year.”

Charity work and helping the community, especially sick and underprivileged children, comes easy for the Islanders.

Matt Moulson and Mark Eaton shop for toys to give to kids during the team's holiday hospital visits around the holidays at Toys "R" Us on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011.
“It’s really important anytime you do charity work and these hospital visits are definitely a highlight during the year for us,” said Kyle Okposo, who shopped alongside his fiancée, Danielle. “It’s a special time around the holidays. For kids who are less fortunate, who are sick and who aren’t able to get presents, we’re able to bring a smile to their faces. We love it.”

Emblem Health sponsored the shopping spree for the second year in a row and helped cover the cost of more than 650 toys the players picked out.

Denise Shearer, Events Manager of Public Affairs and Communications at Emblem Health said the individuality of each gift and witnessing the children’s reactions are what the event is all about.

“The importance of this is that they (Islanders players) do it themselves, so that makes it extra special, especially to give back at this time of the year,” Shearer said. “Having been there last year, to see the kids’ faces light up, it’s just pretty amazing. When they hear the players actually spent their time, picked out the toys and thought of them, it’s an extra special time.”

For the players, the chance to shop and choose the toys they want to give as gifts has a special meaning and makes the visits more personal.

“I did it (hospital visits) in the past on another team, but you didn’t pick the toys on your own, you would just go to the hospital,” said Captain Mark Streit. “I think it’s a lot better when you actually come here to Toys “R” Us and pick out the gifts and then you can give them to the children.”

Defenseman Mark Eaton added, “This personalizes it a little more where we get to actually pick out the gifts. When we go see the children (to pass out the gifts), we can tell them why we picked each thing out. For example, I picked out a tractor for a little guy. Tractors were always something I had to have around my house when I was little kid, so this lets you put more meaning into it.”

The idea of Wednesday’s event, created by the players and set up by Rina, is designed to have each player either shopping solo or paired with their wife, fiancé, girlfriend or another teammate to choose toys for each child in the hospital based upon their age group. The children’s ages range from newborn to 18.

Eaton and his wife, Dori, had two age groups to shop for: 0-2 and 2-5. The two had a slight edge on some of Eaton’s teammates, as they have two young daughters of their own.

“We have a 3-year-old and a soon-to-be 7-year-old, so picking out these toys should be pretty easy,” Eaton said. “You kind of know your way around here a little better.”

However, finding the right toys is not always the easiest task.

Streit’s shopping partner was his fellow Swiss native, Nino Niederreiter. The two had a wide range of children to shop for, both boys and girls, so their cart was overflowing. Niederreiter, just 19, was able to remember his childhood and the toys he had.

“We got Crocodile Dentist in here, I definitely remember that when I was young,” he said. “We also got Monopoly and we got Barbie for the girls. It’s been really fun, but it’s also a little tricky to find the right toys for the right age groups.”

Matt Martin and Michael Grabner shop for toys to give to kids during the team's holiday hospital visits around the holidays at Toys "R" Us on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011. Click on the photo to view a gallery.
Two players who had no time finding toys for their age group were forwards Michael Grabner and Matt Martin. They were very careful to choose each one individually, taking their time to hit each aisle to find the perfect gifts. From Transformers to Legos to a stuffed Smurf toy, they had it all.

“We have 13-18-year-old boys, so that’s stuff that we played with,” Grabner said. “We can choose whatever we like, so that makes it extra fun.”

Looking beyond the toy selection, this event puts the holiday season and the reason for the event into perspective for the players.

“I think giving presents to the children in the hospitals is a great thing for us to do,” Martin said. “Any chance we have to give back to our communities and help out, we will. We want to show how much we appreciate them.”

While Streit added, “It’s Christmas time and it’s tough to see the kids in the hospital and being sick. It’s just great to give them a present and cheer them up. To see a smile on their face and their eyes light up, it’s nice. I know all of the guys love to do this.”

The Islanders players donated their time for the morning shopping spree and will spend next Wednesday with the children who they selected gifts for, but Shearer feels like the children appreciate more than just the gifts they’ll receive from the players.

“I think it means a lot, especially when it’s in their own area,” Shearer said. “It gives them (the children) something to root for (in the Islanders). It’s inspirational to see the players come in and to be doing so many good things.  For the children to have that and to watch them play, it’s great. It helps them to get healthy.”

For the Islanders, that’s what the holiday season is all about.

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