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In difficult times, Yanni Gourde steps up for Make-A-Wish kids

With kids having their wishes postponed, Gourde has been chatting with them and their families through the Messages of Hope program

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL /

When 17-year-old Michael McComb heard he'd be hopping on a Zoom video call with Tampa Bay Lightning forward Yanni Gourde, the 11th grader pulled a Lightning sweater out of the closet to wear during the chat.

The jersey belonged to his father, who passed away within the last year. Michael and his dad used to attend Lightning games together, fostering the youngster's love of the Bolts. Michael is fighting cancer and lives with his grandparents in Spring Hill.

On the call, Michael shows Yanni the First Game Certificate he got from the Lightning a couple seasons ago. Yanni asks what game it was from. Michael remembers the game being against Pittsburgh.

"You guys kicked their butt," he said, recalling the 7-1 win over the Penguins on October 21, 2017.

"I think I might have played. I don't know," Gourde responded. "I've been with the team for I think three years now, so I might have been a part of that game."

The game was during Gourde's first full season in the NHL, when he scored 25 goals to establish a Lightning franchise best for most goals as a rookie. Gourde most certainly played in that rout of the Penguins and scored the Bolts' third goal.

Michael remembers sitting in the Chase Club. In front of him, the Lightning were whipping up on the Penguins. Behind him, AMALIE Arena chefs were whipping up any kind of entrée, side dish and dessert a kid could imagine. Figuring out which to pay attention to was Michael's toughest decision of the night.

"It was just the best game ever," Michael said.

"Chase Club seats are pretty good," Yanni replied.
"I mostly focused on the game, even though there was a whole bunch of food," Michael continued. "I liked the game."

Off camera, Michael's grandfather produces an old, wooden Sherwood hockey stick and gives it to his grandson to show Yanni. A neighbor used to play in the NHL and one day, cleaning out his attic, came across the stick and gave it to Michael.

Yanni offers to host Michael and his grandfather for a Lightning game at AMALIE Arena once play resumes and fans are allowed in the stands. He tells Michael he'll give him one of his hockey sticks too.

"Another one you can add to your collection," Yanni says. "I can't wait to meet you in person."

"That'd be great," Michael beams.

The call coming to an end, Yanni thanks Michael for his time, wishes him well, offers him encouragement.

Michael thanks Yanni for the call and says "Go Bolts" before hanging up.


Michael wants to be a video game programmer. His dream is to visit Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine, Calif., a developer and publisher of entertainment software (think video games like World of Warcraft).

Make-A-Wish Southern Florida was set to fulfill Michael's wish, but because of the coronavirus, has had to postpone his trip out West. Lisa Andrews, Tampa Bay and Suncoast regional director of Make-A-Wish, said the organization is following the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization, so any wish that involves travel or large gatherings will be postponed through August 31.

"(These wish kids) heard this great news, they were getting a wish," Andrews said. "Now we don't know when the wish is going to happen."

While Michael and other children wait for their wishes to come true, Make-A-Wish continues to encourage through its Messages of Hope program, where celebrities and other wish kids record videos and share them with wish families, reassuring them their wishes will come true once coronavirus restrictions are lifted, asking them to stay strong and positive. Some offer inspirational messages. Some sing songs. Famous chef Gordon Ramsay apologizes for wishes that have been cancelled to the set of his TV show Hell's Kitchen and MasterChef Junior and promises to meet up soon with wish kids once it's possible.

Gourde jumped on board as well, offering to reach out to local kids who are waiting for their wishes to be granted to give them something to look forward to. Gourde has been involved with Make-A-Wish before, donating tickets to wish families and meeting them after games, back before the NHL pause.

Andrews brainstormed and came up with three local wish kids who had a connection to Gourde or the Lightning and had their wishes postponed.

Over the last week, Gourde sat down at his home laptop and chatted with each wish kid, finding a way to connect with them - not easy given kids can be shy, especially around a pro hockey player, combined with the lag time we've all experienced the last couple months on video calls -- offering them encouragement, explaining why their wish has been postponed and offering to meet with them at a Lightning game once fans are allowed to return to arenas.

"That's what our wishes do; we say they give the children hope, strength and joy," Andrews said. "It's something to look forward to, something to look back on. They'll always remember it. We had this one wish child, she just graduated from the University of Florida, but she was our summer intern last year, and she'd had her wish to meet Minnie Mouse when she was seven years old and had cancer. And she did one of those videos just thanking the kids, and here she is 21 years old and still can tell you every detail about that day and going to Disney and being with her family.

"It stays with them for a lifetime, and it's an awesome memory," Andrews said.


When Yanni calls Jack Teeter, the 17 year old can't wait to talk about the results of his latest CAT scan. The lymph nodes in his neck tested negative for cancer.

"That is great. That's awesome," Yanni says.

Jack and his family went to the Tampa Bay Fights Cancer Night on December 23 and got to watch the Lightning host the Florida Panthers and meet Yanni after the game. Yanni notices during the video chat the teenager has gotten bigger, stronger and is growing facial hair.

Jack says he has a weight set in his garage and has been jogging and lifting every day during quarantine.

"That's why you're looking so good man," Yanni grins.

Like Yanni, Jack is an athlete. He's a left-handed pitcher for Academy at the Lakes in Land O' Lakes. His mom Renee is on the call and says her son is a "thinking" pitcher. He mixes up his pitches, keeps the hitter guessing, throws a lot of breaking stuff.

She says the hope is by fall he'll be throwing 80 miles per hour consistently and accurately.

"Do you think I could hit that?" Yanni asks.
"You do like 100 mile per hour slap shots, right?" Jack replies.

"Yeah, not really 100 miles per hour," Yanni laughs. "No, that's more Heddy. There's no chance I could touch the ball if you pitched to me."

Renee says Jack was dealing with complications from Hodgkin lymphoma early in the school year. Then when he was starting to regain his strength, the coronavirus hit, cancelling the baseball season.

"He's had his entire junior year taken from him," Renee said. "It's been hard on him."


Alex Miller turned 12 on Friday.

He got a birthday surprise when Yanni popped up on his laptop in the afternoon to say hi.

"When I saw it was your birthday today," Yanni told Alex, "I thought what great timing."

Alex has cystic fibrosis, and quarantine has been difficult for him. His mom Heather joins him on the call.

As a birthday gift, Yanni offers to bring Alex and his family out to a future Lightning game. Alex attended his first game earlier this season on Tampa Bay Fights Cancer Night and loved it.

"Probably get to see me afterwards, take a picture together and we'll see what I can do but maybe I can get you a signed stick too," Yanni says.

"That's awesome," Alex exclaims.

Yanni asks Alex about his wish, which is to go on a cruise together as a family. They were scheduled to go this summer but will probably have to wait until next year. Alex is undeterred by the postponement though. He says his family hasn't taken a real vacation together, just traveled to Pennsylvania to visit family. He wants the four of them to go: mom, dad and brother. He's got his cruise line picked out too.

"So there's the one exact ship called the Symphony of the Seas by Royal Caribbean, and you'll know it, it's pretty big," Alex tells Yanni. "They have a bunch of suites. A lot of slides and pools and hot tubs."

"I've been on a cruise, I think a few times," Yanni replies. "It's so nice on a cruise, relaxing…It's so much fun and especially going with your family, this is going to be great."

Later, Alex tells Yanni he's been helping out in the kitchen and really likes making tacos.

"That's good. I love tacos," Yanni says.

"I use ground beef," Alex offers.

"My favorite. You can't go wrong with those," Yanni replies. "I haven't been cooking much like you. My wife does more of the cooking. I'm more of the washing-off-the-plates-afterward guy. But I would love tacos from you."

Before Yanni goes, mom asks if they can get a picture, says their family will never let them live it down if they don't send proof the NHL pro called. Alex leans in to the laptop with Yanni's face on the screen, mom motioning to her son to get closer.

"Thank you very much for calling," Alex tells Yanni.

"You're welcome and happy birthday again," Yanni says. "See you guys."

As Yanni disappears from the screen, Heather turns to Alex.

"He's so nice."

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