An athlete walks into a room with his head up and his chest out.
One sick child changes all that.
The Maple Leafs made their annual visit to Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital, Wednesday. They wore their jerseys over their shirts and their hearts on their sleeves.
Players who would charge into a corner against a 200-pound opponent gently approached children, some with knitted caps to augment hair lost to chemotherapy. Over here, Jeremy Williams was expertly positioning his young opponent to score on Curtis Joseph in a game of bubble hockey. Over there, players invited mothers to photograph them with their sons or daughters.
“I loved meeting these guys” said Jonathan Silva, a 16-year-old who has spent the last two months at Sick Kids. “They were so friendly. I didn’t know they would be like this. I thought they would be all mad like on TV.”
Ethan Wood of Toronto had two reasons to meet his favourite, Ian White.
“Number seven is a defenceman like me,” he said. “Plus I’m seven years old.”
“It’s close to my heart,” said Jason Blake, diagnosed with leukemia just over a year ago. “I know it’s just for a short while but it’s great to take their minds off their troubles.”
Players sat absolutely still through a short meeting before they were dispatched through the hospital. There is a strategy session, even for something that seems as simple as a hospital visit.
Players disinfected their hands and were asked not to guess at a child’s gender since chemotherapy can make identifying gender difficult. The players were also asked to avoid asking the child about their condition. The idea is to make the kid forget they’re in hospital, not remind them.
“Today was the first day to have a formal introduction to how to treat the kids,” said assistant coach Tim Hunter. “They are in the hospital for a reason and you don’t want to them to think about it too much.”
Through it all, Leafs coach Ron Wilson paid attention to the parents.
“It’s different for me. I have kids and a granddaughter. I think of the parents as much as the kids. The kids are usually stronger than their parents and are able to handle the situation. They might actually forget about being here.”
The expectation, of course, is that the kids will remember meeting the Maple Leafs. And vice-versa.
“The benefit to the player is that he’s earning his keep and giving back for the right to play in this great city,” said general manager Brian Burke. “But I think it goes much deeper. It makes the player’s day as much as it makes the kid’s day.”