The normal throng of media had disbanded, as had most of his teammates, and Bernier easily found the person he looks for after every game.
Lauren Wiedmeier, the Kings’ Community Relations Coordinator, was waiting in the hallway with four special guests who were bursting with excitement and very eager to meet the French-Canadian netminder.
Kimberly Arista and Mariah Martinez, both 10 years old, were accompanied by Kimberly’s aunt, Liliana Molina, and Albert Garcia, the Gifts and Special Events Coordinator for Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, who were all the privileged recipients of four lower-level tickets to the Kings/Capitals game, purchased by none other than Bernier himself.
Every player on the Kings’ active roster contributes money to the Kings Community Corner, through which tickets are distributed to families who would otherwise be unable to attend games, and six players -- Bernier, Simon Gagne
, Mike Richards
, Dustin Penner
, Scott Parse
and Brad Richardson
-- all personally purchase a set of four 100-level season seats, from which tickets are dispersed for each individual game, within the organization of the player’s choice.
While Richards’ tickets go to Padres Contra el Cancer (Fathers Against Cancer), “Gagne’s Gang” is the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, “Penner’s Posse” is the Salvation Army, and both “Parse’s Party” and “Richie’s Rascals” come from the After School All Stars.
Although all the ticket recipients are fortunate to be treated by the athletes themselves, “Bernier’s Angels,” all CHLA affiliates, receive something extra special.
After each game, Bernier personally meets each of his guests, giving them an opportunity for photos and autographs from their evening host. As uniquely special as this experience is, perhaps the most exceptional part about it is that it wasn’t something asked of Bernier by the organization – it is something he insisted upon himself.
“He loves meeting the children and their families after games, and you can tell that this program means so much to him,” says Wiedmeier, who typically oversees Bernier’s post-game meet and greets.
“Not only does he sign autographs for the families and take a picture with them, but he also spends some time with the families, getting to know the children, asking them how they enjoyed coming out to the game, and what their favorite parts of the night were.”
Arista and Martinez, who both admit that their favorite part of the game was watching Bernier “catch the puck,” squealed with excitement each time the double doors opened to the locker room hallway, and were quick to recognize Bernier when he made his appearance.
“They had a blast, you can see they were pretty excited through the whole game. At the end of every period they asked ‘are we going to see him now?’ and I had to tell them it was just the end of the first period,” says Garcia, who chaperones the CHLA guests at times.
CHLA has sent various affiliates to enjoy the games on behalf of Bernier, from patients and their families, to volunteers. Arista and Molina recently suffered the loss of a family member, which put a damper on what should have been a bright holiday season.
“I thought it would be a great opportunity to bring them over and enjoy this because for one, they get to meet Jonathan, which is fantastic, but they also get to enjoy some of the best seats in the house. When you connect the dots it really makes it a positive experience,” Garcia says.
While it’s fairly obvious that the experience is an exciting one for the guests, it’s also something that is emotionally fulfilling for Bernier.
“For them it’s awesome but for me too. Sometimes you have a bad game and you see those kids and you have a different mindset when you see that they’re struggling for their lives and sometimes I’m just mad about a game,” states Bernier, who is in his first season of donating tickets since he played junior hockey in Maine.
“It helps me mentally. It’s bigger when I lose or when I don’t play, sometimes I get down on myself, but to see those kids after, that’s when it brings you back up.”
Bernier’s decision to support CHLA stems primarily from the team’s affiliation with the organization, Southern California’s first and largest pediatric hospital, which the team regularly visits.
“It’s really sad when you go to the hospital and see those kids that want to be out there playing with their friends, and have a normal life and they can’t, so it’s the right choice for me,” Bernier says.
When the Kings made their annual holiday visit to CHLA on November 29, Bernier found two kids he had met just a few weeks prior when they came down for their meet and greet after being selected to attend the game as “Bernier’s Angels.”
“They all gravitated towards each other. The little girl stayed and talked to Jonathan for a while, and he decorated ornaments with them just about until it was time to leave,” recalls Wiedmeier. “It was amazing to see that he had the opportunity to see them again, and build the relationship with them even more.”
Perhaps the expression ‘what goes around, comes around’ is the perfect way to describe Bernier and his generous effort to give back to the community.
“It’s a funny thing – we go to the hospital and obviously it’s for the kids, but for everyone, when you leave the hospital, it makes you forget all your little issues,” says Bernier.
“It works both ways, actually.”