TORONTO -- John Tavares and Michael Hutchinson each became fathers in the past year. So when the Toronto Maple Leafs made their annual Christmas visit to The Hospital For Sick Kids on Monday, each said having a child of his own made the visit extra special.
"Being a father now, you appreciate your health and certainly your child's health and how much that impacts you. I couldn't imagine going through something like what these families are going through," said Tavares, whose son was born prior to training camp in September. "It's great to take a few minutes to try to give them something to smile about, take their mind off what they're going through and letting them meet our team. Being a part of this is a great way of trying to give back."
Hutchinson, whose daughter was born as the Maple Leafs began the Eastern Conference First Round against the Boston Bruins in April, said the visit, a team tradition dating back to the 1920s, is a highlight.
"It's amazing the strength of these kids, going through what they have to. Nobody should ever have to, let alone kids," Hutchinson said. "It's amazing seeing how excited they are when you come through the door. It's great spending time with them, playing some games with them, it's a great feeling. This is one of the best parts of the job being able to give back. It's something you look forward to all year this visit."
The value of Maple Leafs visit lasts far beyond the few hours the team is actually on site.
"It's legendary. Patients are talking about it for days and weeks after. It's one of the highlights of the year for our families," said Carolynn Darrell, the hospital's supervisor of family spaces and special events. "All the kids really connect with the players and it acts as a great opportunity to come out of their rooms, get dressed, maybe have a shower for the first time in a few days. It's motivation to get out and forget about why they're here for a few moments. We're so grateful for the relationship we have with the Leafs."
Mitchell Marner has been making hospital visits to meet children since his days with London of the Ontario Hockey League. The Maple Leafs forward said he was inspired to launch his charity, the Marner Assist Fund, after realizing the impact the visits have.
"I saw how much of an impact we had on those kids, so I wanted to just keep doing it on my own. That's why I started my charity, realizing I could make a real difference in someone's life. It's something I want to keep growing and continuing to raise money for."
Coach Sheldon Keefe said he was positively affected by the fighting spirit shown by the patients he met.
"Seeing people here who are fighting and seeing the smiles on people's faces and how they're handling tough times, there's a lot to be said for that," Keefe said. "Everyone is positive here; upbeat and happy to see the Leafs, but it's just the fighting spirit here that is a cool thing to witness."