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Witt helping others on and off the ice

by Dan Rosen
Seven years ago, Brendan Witt and his wife, Salima, set out to help a family friend by making one last dream come true for John McGowan, a 16-year-old boy from Maryland who was losing his battle with cystic fibrosis.

The New York Islanders defenseman, who was playing in Washington at the time, invited John and his family to a Capitals home game. He got them tickets in a suite. He gave them jerseys. He brought them into the dressing room to gather autographs.

John, in his wheelchair, was discharged from the hospital only to come to the game. His family was worried about his breathing. He was attached to an oxygen tank.

"He didn't look good," Witt said, "but he was really happy."

It was the McGowan family's final outing with their son, who died months later.

Brendan Witt, rugged NHL defenseman, made that memory happen.

"They still say it was a great experience," Witt said.

The moment forever will resonate with Witt, too.

The memory of seeing a smiling John McGowan yuck it up with Olie Kolzig and the rest of the Caps has helped turn Brendan and Salima Witt into quite a philanthropic tag team, the kind deserving of some recognition.

Witt got it this week as the Islanders' beat writers announced he is their nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is voted on and handed out every year by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association.

With his strong sense of community involvement off the ice and his fierce dedication and sacrifice for his teammates on it, Witt fits the bill as an ideal candidate for the PHWA's prestigious award.

"When it was first brought up to my attention by (Islanders beat writer) Greg Logan of Newsday, I was kind of in shock, like, 'Wow,' " Witt said. "It's an honor to get that nomination, to be in this class of guys. I haven't won much in my hockey career, so just to get nominated is a great honor.

"It is a kid's game and I'm privileged to play it for a living."

"I think he's everything for us," Islanders coach Ted Nolan told Logan. "He's the type of character guy you build your organization around. If there's a deserving individual in this League to receive such a prestigious award, it certainly would be Brendan."

On the ice, Witt takes human sacrifice to an almost masochistic level.

He doesn't care that he beats up his body for the betterment of the team. Last season, Witt finished fifth in the NHL with 207 blocked shots, and was tied for seventh with 231 hits. In 59 games this season Witt has 133 blocked shots and dished out 135 hits, and right now he's playing with a severely sprained right knee, which for all intents and purposes should have him on the shelf.

"I sacrifice my body quite a bit, but this is who I am," Witt said. "I take a lot of pride in it. I'm not an offensive guy, I'm a defensive guy. I do what it takes to help make plays on the other end. If I need to block shots, I'll block shots with my body. That's the way I've been raised. My father taught me that whatever you do, make sure you work hard, work honest and have pride. It only stings for a little bit."

Off the ice, Witt is a family man who does whatever he can for the betterment of his community.

He is a spokesperson and ambassador for SurfAid International, a non-profit humanitarian aid organization that actively tries to improve the health of people living in isolated regions connected through surfing.

Witt said he is passionate about stopping the spread of malaria in the Mentawai Islands near Indonesia. And since he has been an avid surfer for eight years -- he takes surfing trips to Costa Rica and Hawaii -- his relationship with SurfAid is a natural fit.

"You know, it's very easy for a lot of us to give back to the hockey community, but I thought I'd go in a different direction and give back to one of my real passions," said Witt. "I can't imagine living so close to malaria, so I contacted SurfAid International in San Diego and we set it up for me to be a spokesman."

Ever since that humbling day with John McGowan, Brendan and Salima also have been promoting Witter's Hitters, their own philanthropic endeavor.

Just like they did with McGowan, the Witts invite children at local cancer hospitals to Islanders games, supplying them with tickets in a suite, jerseys and a chance to scour the locker room for autographs after games.

"It's tough seeing kids so vulnerable and not getting the chance to get the experiences of every-day life that normal kids get," Witt said. "It makes you not take stuff for granted. Now that I have my own kids, the most important thing is they're healthy. You never know when they can get taken from you, so make sure you enjoy your time."

John McGowan sure did.

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