NEW YORK -- New York Islanders forward Matt Martin learned at a young age the value of being a role model and how the status of being a professional athlete can have a positive impact on others.
One of Martin's idols growing up was retired NHL defenseman Ed Jovanovski, who played junior hockey for the Windsor Spitfires in Martin's hometown. Whenever Jovanovski came out for warm-ups, Martin tossed a piece of bubble gum over the boards and in return Jovanovski handed him hockey sticks. Seeing Jovanovski go the extra mile to put a smile on his face inspired Martin to where if he made the NHL, he would provide his fans with a similar feeling.
"It really is amazing the effect it can have on you," Martin said. "It happened to me first-hand, and I just felt like carrying that along and touching as many people as you can."
Martin, a winner of the Bob Nystrom Award four consecutive years as voted on by fans to the Islanders player who best exemplifies leadership, hustle and dedication, has touched many during his NHL career. His benevolence was showcased Wednesday when he met two young cancer patients selected by the Islanders. Martin presented Dylan Beach, 9, and Leanna Pastolero, 12, with $250 gift cards to the NHL Store and helped present a $5,000 check from the NHL to Ronald McDonald House charities on behalf of Hockey Fights Cancer.
"The NHL was very generous in making a $5,000 donation to them," Martin said. "It's a very sad thing, but you obviously want to raise as much money as you can and find a cure."
Beach is a four-time cancer survivor. Diagnosed with anaplastic ependymoma, an aggressive brain tumor, in 2008 at the age of 2, he's had six brain surgeries, intensive chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant and specialized proton beam radiation during his treatment.
But that hasn't stopped Beach from living and excelling. Twelve days after his fourth surgery in August, he helped lead his dek hockey team to a championship. He also dropped the ceremonial first puck before the Islanders' game against the Boston Bruins at Barclays Center as part of their Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night on Oct. 23.
"You see the kind of passion he has and the enjoyment he has," Martin said. "To be able to get to know him today on a more personal level and spend some time with him was awesome.
"You put a smile on a kid's face, it's one of the best things I think for us as athletes to be able to do. I remember when I was younger meeting athletes. It really brightens your day. It makes your day, week, month, whatever it is. It can have a very positive effect on them."
Martin has been affected by cancer; his grandmother died from the disease when he was 6. He also lost a close family friend to lymphoma last year at the age of 14, which was the impetuous for him to get involved with the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island. Located in New Hyde Park, N.Y., the house provides the comforts of home, and a sense of safeness and hope for sick kids and their parents.
"They try to make them feel as comfortable as they can while they're going through a huge burden with a sick child," said Michael Fallarino, Vice Chairman of the Board of Directors for the Ronald McDonald House of Long Island. "By keeping families together they find that doctors and everyone else finds that the kids will react and actually heal much quicker because they have that family support right there."
Pastolero will have another chemotherapy treatment later this week. She initially did not want her picture taken with Martin. That changed once Martin gave her an Islanders hat, among other gifts.
"Just the idea for these children to meet with Matt and for him to give them this day of happiness … because they've been through a lot, especially Leanna," said Theresa Brucculeri, secretary of the Ronald McDonald House board of directors. "I'm happy that she's smiling.
"We've kept a really close relationship [with the Islanders]. The [players'] wives have come to cook at the house several times. Now with the change, with them going to [Brooklyn], I'm happy that they're coming back with us. It's so important for these kids to have the sports teams to show their love and concern for us and for the children."
This summer, Martin launched the Matt Martin Foundation to generate financial support and awareness for the NYPD Widows and Children's Fund, the Association for Children with Down Syndrome, the Boomer Esiason Foundation for Cystic Fibrosis, and the Islanders Children's Foundation.
"It's something that warms your heart," Martin said. "To be able to do this in a position now where I can have an effect on a young kid and put a smile on their face much like Ed Jovanovski did for me when I was younger … obviously they're going through a difficult time so to be able to brighten up their day and put smile on their face, it could be the best medicine."