NEW YORK -- Toronto Maple Leafs forward Matt Martin made a family's day at the NHL Store Powered by Reebok on Monday.
The Matt Martin Foundation, the American Humane and Tito's Vodka presented United States Army veteran Chris Ellis, his wife Kerry and their daughter Breelyn with a service dog, Lex, who they are bringing back to their home in Wendell, North Carolina.
Ellis joined the U.S. Army in 1996 and was on active duty until 2003 as a staff sergeant. He then joined the reserves to become a drill sergeant and remained until 2005.
Breelyn, who was celebrating her ninth birthday, was also presented with a $1,000 gift card to the NHL Store Powered by Reebok.
"It's very exciting. It's very wonderful," Ellis said. "This is one of the times that words just don't have enough to say."
Though Ellis is just starting to get back into hockey, he said he was familiar with Martin's work. Martin has 97 points (47 goals, 50 assists) and 803 penalty minutes in 520 NHL games with the Maple Leafs and New York Islanders. He signed with Toronto as a free agent on July 1, 2016 after playing his first six NHL seasons with New York.
"I knew he played for the Islanders and I knew he was good with the fisticuffs," Ellis said. "So I was a fan. I used to live in Michigan and upstate New York, so I've always liked hockey. When I moved down south, I kind of got out of it. But I'm definitely going to start watching the Leafs again."
The Matt Martin Foundation generates financial support and awareness for several causes, including police and military.
"Getting to know Chris today and some of the struggles that he's going through, how the dog is helping him through the training that they started doing together, it's pretty special to hear," Martin said. "When you see these results, it obviously makes it that much more special for myself and everyone involved that it's working.
"It's just always been very important to me. Not only military, but NYPD, police forces in general. They make a lot of sacrifices and put a lot on the line for our protection and our freedom. I really do believe they don't always get the credit they deserve. I'm not sitting here saying they don't make mistakes as well and that there isn't bad eggs involved, just like in any profession. But for the most part, they're here to protect us and they're here for the greater good. I think a lot of times that gets lost and goes unnoticed."
Prior to visiting the NHL Store Powered by Reebok, Martin and his girlfriend, Sydney Esiason, had lunch with Ellis and his family. It provided Martin with an opportunity to get to know Ellis on a more personal level before the family was showered with gifts, and, most importantly, a service dog to help Ellis with his daily personal struggles.
"I feel very appreciated," Ellis said. "But I feel that maybe it's not necessary to be this appreciated. I just did what people do. I just did what my family does. My family joins the military … my brother, he's been in for 22 years now. My dad did 26, my grandfather did I think 10. His father did a lot and his father did a lot. It's just what we do. It's our family business."
"You can see firsthand the kind of work we're doing, what American Humane [is doing], and that's the reason why we're here today, to just kind of show that," Martin said. "A lot of times, you make a donation and you don't get to see where the money goes. I think you question a little bit what the money is being used for. Obviously, it's being used for a great cause here today.
"That's why we're here. The NHL has been great, Tito's Vodka was great, making a huge donation for us. Obviously, the American Humane Association, training the dog and finding the perfect fit for a veteran for this. All in all, it was a great day and getting to know Chris and his family was just a bonus for me."