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Witt always willing to put others first

by Chuck Gormley /

"No kid should have to go through that. Kids shouldn't be stuck in a hospital room looking out a window. If we can get them out to a hockey game, I'm all for it."
-- Brendan Witt

Brendan Witt is one of the most feared hitters in hockey, dishing out more than 400 body slams in the past two seasons alone.

He has dropped the mitts and duked it out with the best NHL heavyweights for 14 years, piling up more than 1,300 penalty minutes along the way.

Witt has made the goal crease his personal battleground and shows no pity for those who dare to enter.

His long, stringy hair and colorful tattoos give him the appearance of a rock star, but the facial scars give away his real calling.

But beneath the gruff, 6-foot-2, 223-pound exterior beats a heart of gold.

Inspired by the fighting spirit of a 16-year-old Maryland boy named John McGowan more than seven years ago, Witt and his wife, Salima, have been making the lives of children stricken with cancer more tolerable through a program called "Witter's Hitters."

Witt was a defenseman with the Washington Capitals when he met McGowan at one of the Capitals' periodic visits to children's hospitals. Witt invited McGowan, who was battling cystic fibrosis, to a Capitals game. McGowan passed away a few months later.

"It was the first time in months he was let out of the hospital and it turned out to be his last family outing," Witt said. "Sal and I were moved by that and we did a (charity) walk for the family the following year.

"No kid should have to go through that. Kids shouldn't be stuck in a hospital room looking out a window. If we can get them out to a hockey game, I'm all for it."

With the help of Capitals owner Ted Leonsis, Witt established "Witter's Hitters," inviting children with cancer to Capitals home games and inviting them to the dressing room for autographs and photos. Witt received so much satisfaction from the program that he continued it on Long Island, where he is now in his third season with the Islanders. Once a month Witt, invites cancer-stricken children and their families to Nassau Coliseum and treats them to their own suite.

"A lot of teams visit hospitals, but we wanted to make this our thing," he said. "We go to all the hospitals on Long Island and invite different kids so that every experience is a new one. Some kids have never been to a hockey game. We just want to let these kids be kids and have a fun experience and not dwell on having to go to the hospital for treatments. Even if it's for just a couple hours, it makes them smile and forget about all the other stuff."

Now 33, Witt credits his giving spirit to his wife, Salima, whom he met by chance when he was a young defenseman with the Capitals.

"We were sitting next to each other on an airplane waiting to leave Chicago's O'Hare Airport," Witt recalls.

The flight was delayed and the two began chatting. Salima, who is from Montreal, told Witt she was Canadian, and Witt, who is from Humboldt, Saskatchewan, said he was also Canadian.

"She thought it was a pickup line and asked me to show her my passport," Witt laughed. "Ten years later we're still happily married."

Happily, yes, but not without their share of scares.

Six years ago, Salima gave birth to the couple's second daughter, Safiya.  Eight days later, after Brendan left for an exhibition game in Dallas, Salima developed a life-threatening blood infection that left her in intensive care.

"She suffered for months," he said. "I learned later it kills one out of every two people. It attacks the liver, then the kidneys, then the heart. It puts your body into shock."

Salima eventually made a full recovery.

Three years ago, the Witts received an entirely different kind of scare when Hurricane Wilma unleashed her fury on their Jupiter, Fla., home. With Brendan, Salima, Aliana and Safiya huddled inside, winds howled, windows bowed and the landscaping around the house was ripped out of its roots, but the structure intact and the family escaped unhurt.

The two events made Witt appreciate just how precious life can be and how much his family means to him.

"I think Salima reveals the softer side of me," Witt said. "She encourages me to give back. We're really fortunate to have two healthy kids (Aliana, 9, and Safiya, 6). When I look at some of these kids who are sick, some of them approach life in days and months, not years."

Some of those children, Witt said, are now the same age as his oldest daughter, Aliana, who helps her mother hand out goodie bags to Witter's Hitters.

"It could easily happen with us," Witt said. "Cancer doesn't pick on the poor or the rich. It picks everybody. We're just trying to make things a little easier, even if it's just going to a hockey game."
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