While the suite itself may be decorated and fun, Dowd, the director of the program, also has to make sure visitors have everything they need. Sometimes a child may be able to eat only certain types of food or room needs to be made so that a wheelchair can be pushed through the suite. Each night the hard work that goes on behind the scenes pays off in the form of kids being able to have a good time.
"The kids are the reason we do it, they're absolutely amazing," Dowd said. "They're going through so much that when they are here they finally get to just sit down and catch their breath and not think about fighting cancer. But maybe just making a new friend, who they haven't met at the Cancer Center or the Pediatric Cancer Foundation, or just not thinking about anything and just being a family is really what Brad wants to happen. The kids are just amazing, and Brad is so great because he takes such a vested interest in the kids."
Taking that extra interest is what makes Richy's Rascals such a special program. In addition to bringing children to the games, Richards makes a point to meet with the groups afterwards.
When Richards meets the kids and their families he doesn't just sign autographs and take pictures. Instead, Richards learns who the children and their families are and then does his best to keep up with how they are doing.
"It's not just merely meeting them downstairs," Down said. "It's telephone calls during the week when we're talking about whatever and he'll say "Hey Kase, how's Daniel, how's Sam?" How's whomever? And he really tries to keep up and we try to touch them and impact them and do the best we can. We try to go to as many things as we can, schedule permitting, just to stay on top of it, because unfortunately cancer is at epidemic levels here in Tampa Bay."
Richards' efforts were recently recognized during Tampa Bay Fights Cancer Week. In conjunction with their annual fundraiser, the Pediatric Cancer Foundation honored Richards at their yearly Fisherman's Ball.
Quietly, Richards does more than host the Richy's Rascals program. On days off Richards happily visits local cancer centers and Dowd is currently working through the final stages of paperwork to create the Brad Richards Foundation.
The goal of the Foundation will be to reach out beyond the pediatric cancer community to other Tampa Bay area initiatives.
"It's not all finalized yet, but I'd like to do a lot of things in the community," Richards said. "Branch out from pediatric cancer to maybe youth programs or to hockey programs to help grow the game of hockey with the youth in the town. Different things like that because there are so many things you can do. It's tough to really choose but we'll try to be as broad as we can."
Even as they start to branch out, pediatric cancer and the Richy's Rascals program will still be at the forefront of Richards' giving efforts.
Whether he's making connections at the games or taking trips to cancer centers, Richards is building relationships that are sure to brighten the days of the families and children who are affected by cancer.
"The greatest part of the program is when the first few times kids will come in and the families will come in and there's that initial awe like, 'That's Brad Richards the hockey superstar," ' Dowd said. "But what I feel, and I think [Richards] would say the same thing, when we feel like we're really bonding with them is when Brad walks in the cancer center and they're all like, 'Hey Brad!' It's not that initial running up star-struck and awestruck. It's just Brad down on the floor playing with the kids, and I think that's when we know we're doing our job."
In the long run, what Richards is giving back is more than a hockey game experience hosted by a star athlete. Through Richy's Rascals, he's giving back a program that gives families a chance to get away from their worries and create special bonds of friendship.
For the children touched by Richy's Rascals, going to the suite and seeing Richards play is more than just watching a game. As they fight against cancer, it's also a chance to relax, celebrate life and have fun setting off a goal light while cheering on a friend.BACK