When asked what jersey he wanted to wear to the Penguins morning skate on Tuesday, lifelong Penguins fan Patrick McIlvain couldn’t say it – he had to write it.
“He wrote Marc-Andre Fleury
down on the pad, so we got him a shirt and he’s sporting it today here,” said McIlvain’s lifelong friend Ryan Fiano. “It’s pretty neat to see. “
Tuesday marks the soldier’s third visit with the Penguins after being wounded while serving his country in Afghanistan. After being struck in the head by a bullet during a battle in the city of Kherwar in 2010, McIlvain has been on a long road to recovery from an injury that nearly took his life.
McIlvain still has limited speech and movement, but his visits with the Penguins have sparked improvement in his condition.
“It seems like being around the game and being around the players that he admired before he joined the army (have helped),” Fiano said. “I think it’s something familiar, so it just really brings a lot of joy to him.”
Fiano and McIlvain’s family began the Pat Mac Fund in addition to wristbands to honor the young soldier. Information about the Pat Mac Fund can be found at www.patmacfund.org or on the scholarship’s Facebook page.
Wanting to go a step further, last year Fiano wrote Dan Potash of ROOT SPORTS a letter asking if the Penguins would wear the wristbands in McIlvain’s honor.
Potash forwarded the letter to head coach Dan Bylsma, who immediately invited McIlvain to meet with the team. Ever since then, McIlvain’s family continues to be in close contact with Potash as well as the Penguins organization when it comes to McIlvain’s rehabilitation progress.
“It obviously touches his heart so much and touches him so much that he can be this close to the team that he loves and find the energy to speak or the energy to move in a different way,” Potash said.
“We have video that Ryan sent me of Pat actually standing and hitting him a hockey puck with a hockey stick. It’s amazing. To think there is a connection there between him and the team is great. I was just lucky enough to get the letter.”
On his road to recovery, McIlvain has moved from the VA Medical Hospital in McGuire, Richmond to a facility in Raleigh, NC. The new facility is a non-hospital environment with six bedrooms in two houses as well as a gymnasium.
“It’s 5-6 hours a day of therapies as opposed to the 2-3 that he got at the hospital,” McIlvain’s uncle Tom said about the new facility. “One of the things that picked up this past year was getting to use the walker just to go to his room, the table or to go to the other room instead of just letting him sit in the wheelchair and only get out of the chair for therapy.
“That was a big step where he had to work a lot to get out of the chair 10-12 times a day, not just once or twice. Those were things that picked up.”
McIlvain also plays hockey with a league called Triangle Special Hockey founded by JV Cotterell.
“(Cotterell) thought that, well, if Pat could sit on a sled, then he could be out on the ice,” Tom said. “They made a short stick and there are actually spikes on the butt end so he uses the stick to propel himself. He’s been going almost every other week. He’s always excited to go do that.”
After practice McIlvain spent a little bit of time in the locker room with captain Sidney Crosby
and forward Craig Adams
. He even sported the Penguins Reebok shoes that Crosby gave him during his last visit.
“It’s great,” Adams said about McIlvain’s progress. “I think Pat’s been here three times now if my memory serves. I talked to the guys he was with and Pat for a little bit. They said that he’s up and walking around with some help now, even playing a little sled hockey and stuff like that.”
“They are so gracious,” Fiano said about the Penguins. “They come over and talk to him and what not. The last time we were here (Crosby) spent 45 minutes with him. It was just unbelievable.”
But while McIlvain’s friends and family are grateful for the time the Penguins spend with Pat, the players feel like they’re the lucky ones.
“I think what impacts (the players) is that he’s their age,” said Tom McMillan, Penguins vice president of communications. “This man is in a different situation. He went over (to Afghanistan) and got tragically wounded, but I think they realize if they can just bring a little happiness to someone in that situation it’s worth it.
“We know he gets excited. We always hear from the facility how well he does when he goes back after (he visits the team). I think that pumps everybody up.”
“It’s great to hear,” Adams said. “Obviously it’s a long, long road for him with the injury he had serving his country. You know, every time I see him at least, it’s definitely special.”