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Hospital visit 'humbling' for Sharks, thrill for patients

by Dave Lozo
LANDSTUHL, Germany --  It didn't take long for members of the San Jose Sharks to realize the impact of Monday's visit to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a military hospital that treats soldiers who have suffered the most severe injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One soldier who fought in Afghanistan was in a self-induced coma in the hospital's intensive care unit. His mother was there to greet a group of Sharks that included Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Scott Nichol. While expressing her thanks to the group of players for taking the time to visit, emotion overwhelmed her and she broke down in tears.

"It's real humbling, that's for sure," Nichol said. "It's moving, for sure. That's going to tug on every heart string you got in there."

Defenseman Andreas Lilja was in a different group touring the hospital. He spent time talking with Staff Sergeant Albert Castillo, who was recovering from surgery after suffering two gunshot wounds resulting from sniper fire in Afghanistan. Less than five minutes earlier, Castillo was walking through the ward in an effort to get his blood flowing and start the rehab process that would return him to the front lines.

Even with fresh holes in his hip and leg, Castillo wanted nothing more than to get back with his troops. It put things in perspective for everyone, especially Lilja.

"I get hit by a puck and I'm out," Lilja said. "These guys are rushing to go back."

It was a visit that served to both lift the spirits of the patients at Landstuhl and open the eyes of the players as to what a real warrior looks like. Thornton talked about hearing Castillo's story of how he was wounded.

"He said, 'I felt this thing go through my leg and I didn't know what it was. I thought it was a hard paintball.' We're like, 'What?'" Thornton said. "We take a slapper off the shin pad and we think it kind of stings. These guys really are warriors. We like to say that term throughout sports. But these guys are the real warriors."

Sgt. Jason Livingston was still visibly dazed from taking shrapnel to the back of his neck but welcomed the visit. LCpl. Michael Allen -- a Fresno, Calif., native -- was confined to his bed, but still offered encouragement to the Sharks for their upcoming games in Stockholm against the Columbus Blue Jackets, part of the 2010 Compuware NHL Premiere series.

"You guys should give them hell," he said.

It's easy as a jaded sports fan to think a visit like this might not have an impact on soldiers who aren't necessarily from the San Jose area or aren't die-hard hockey fans. Castillo explained why appearances like this mean so much to wounded soldiers who are fighting a war.

 "It shows that we've evolved throughout this conflict to where there's real support," Castillo said. "I signed up when I was 17 to serve my country and it was kind of sad at first when the war kicked off, people saying we shouldn't be involved, we shouldn't take part.

"We're from a country where it's all volunteer service. To get this kind of support from guys that could be back home or training for games or just living it up, they go out of their way to come here. This is awesome. There's nothing better than this."

Twelve players made the trip -- Thornton, Pavelski, Lilja, Nichol, Antero Niittymaki, Antti Niemi, John McCarthy, Jamal Mayers, Niclas Wallin, Mike Moore, Tommy Wingels and Jason Demers -- while the rest of the team stayed behind for an autograph session at SAP Arena in Mannheim that was happening at the same time. Following the hospital tour, the players met members of the Kaiserslauten Eagles, an adult ice hockey team comprised of military personnel stationed in the area.

Grown men trained to be lethal killers suddenly turned into giddy children as the Sharks approached. Josh Taylor, an Airman First Class in the Air Force and the Eagles' goaltender, could barely contain himself after meeting the players.

"I'm pretty excited," said Taylor, a St. Louis native who especially was overwhelmed to meet Mayers, who joined the Sharks this summer but spent 10 seasons with the Blues. "It's just a blast being around them."

From there it was off to Landstuhl's "Warrior Center," which serves as a recreation room where patients can gather to watch television, eat and socialize with one another. Not by coincidence, "Slap Shot" was playing on the flat-screen television for the Sharks' arrival, where they were greeted with a pasta dinner and desserts, all cooked by volunteers who wanted to show their appreciation.

The Sharks blended in seamlessly. Pavelski sat down with a paper plate full of ziti and chatted with a group of patients. Niemi and Thornton posed for pictures. Mayers signed autographs. McCarthy cut a specially made cake with a Sharks logo on it. Nichol held court with a mixed group of walking wounded and Kaiserslauten Eagles as if he'd known them forever.

It was an experience no one on either side of the visit ever will forget.

"Everyone is so supportive," Nichol said. "They were happy for us to come and support them. We really appreciate what they do for us. There's a few of them in there with gunshot wounds and they're an hour and a half out of surgery, in such good spirits and joking around with us. Just talking to them and the men in their units, it's similar to the guys on our team who would do anything for each other. We have a lot of similarities, but those guys are unbelievable. They lay it on the line every single day."

"They were really appreciative for us to come over and kind of take some time, but really it was great for us to give them thanks for what they do for our country and so many countries around the world," Thornton said. "It was something really cool."

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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