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Rangers put smiles on faces of hospitalized children

by Dan Rosen

BERN, Switzerland – Michael Steffen stood out among all the children at Insel Hospital, and it wasn't just because his shirt was bright red.

Of all the youngsters from the pediatric ward who met with players and alumni from the New York Rangers and SC Bern Monday afternoon, Steffen was the only one wearing NHL paraphernalia.

Steffen, who suffered a severe head injury in to a bicycle accident, was wearing a Craig Conroy T-shirt and a Calgary Flames hat. To him, though, it didn't matter one bit that players from New York, not Calgary, were visiting his hospital.

"I got them in Medicine Hat (Alberta)," Steffen, 14, said through an interpreter. "I'm wearing it because an NHL team is here."

After a spirited practice at PostFinance Arena, Rangers forwards Colton Orr and Nigel Dawes, goalie Miika Wiikman and alumni Rod Gilbert and Adam Graves joined the caravan of players and NHL and IIHF staffers that went to the hospital to warm the hearts of the children there.

Graves called the visit a privilege that comes with wearing a Rangers sweater.

"We all know that life is about family and friends and your health, and certainly when you're in a hospital and you're battling what you may be battling your focus is 100 percent on that," Graves said. "For the guys to come in here and put a smile on the kids' faces, it does so much for their spirit and their strength. It puts an air of excitement in place for them. It takes their mind out of it and really gives them a retreat, hopefully a retreat of enjoyment. That's what it's all about and that is the great privilege."

It didn't seem to matter one bit the children didn't speak a lick of English. Their smiles, their giggles and their shyness told the story of how wonderful the experience was for them and how grateful they were to be in the company of professional athletes.

"Language isn't really a factor," Orr said. "You can see we're having fun and the kids are having fun. It's a good experience for all of us, both teams and the kids. Everyone is learning a lot just by meeting new people and enjoying it."

Dawes called the experience "an honor."

"It's pretty neat just being able to talk to them, to cheer them up," he said. "It makes them feel happy for a couple of days so it is definitely an honor to be able to do that."

Steffen said he was more excited to meet the three Rangers players than the six from SC Bern, but definitely some of the kids were gushing over meeting their hometown heroes.

"For kids today, hockey is much bigger than soccer (in Bern)," said Dr. Theddy Slongo, who introduced the kids to the players at the beginning of the hour-long visit. "In Bern, every kid wants to be on this team."

Bern forward Trevor Meier, a native of Burlington, Ontario, who has been playing in Switzerland for 17 years, said hospital visits are rare for SC Bern players. To do one in conjunction with the New York Rangers made it doubly special.

"It's nice to be able to do these things, but it doesn't always get organized," Meier said. "It's nice that during a special event like this that we can put a visit like this together. These kids deserve it."

The players as well as Gilbert and Graves all signed autographs and posed for pictures. Toward the end, Steffen was even showing Orr, Dawes and Wiikman his album full of hockey cards.

"It's just fantastic," Slongo said. "Children take this event into their homes and they will speak of it in their school classes. It's not always like this. During the games and trainings the players are insulated always by security, but now they can touch them and they can ask questions. This is really a fantastic idea by the Rangers. We are absolutely very happy."

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