It’s easy for James Neal to take a moment to send a text message. But for the recipient of that message, a 16-year-old named Sam Keane, those characters on a smartphone screen mean everything.
A native of Oshawa, Ontario, Keane has cerebral palsy, a disorder that affects muscle tone, movement and motor skills. Last summer, mere days before he was to undergo surgery to help combat the issue, Keane met Neal at Grandview Children’s Centre in Neal’s hometown of Whitby, Ontario. The Nashville Predators winger was present along with the Smilezone Foundation, an organization co-founded by former NHLer Adam Graves, whose mission is to create and improve spaces in children’s hospitals and clinics to enhance the lives of children facing illness, disabilities and obstacles.
Neal took part in a presentation for the adolescent program of Grandview Children’s Centre, and he and Keane struck up a friendship. After Keane received a Gold Preds jersey with Neal’s No. 18 on the back, the two began to exchange text messages, first from Neal, encouraging Keane through his surgery and recovery, then from Keane, wishing Neal luck on game days.
When the Predators made a swing through Toronto at the end of February, Neal surprised Sam and his father, Ian, with two club seats to see the Preds top the Maple Leafs in an eventual 3-2 final. For all that Sam has to deal with in his recovery, the chance to reunite with his friend in Toronto helps to make everything worth it.
“Meeting a role model like James, the personality he’s got, he’s such an amazing person,” Sam said at the Air Canada Centre. “He really cares about his fans and that’s something special.”
Sam’s father echoed his son’s sentiments, stating that Neal’s presence in Sam’s life has helped tremendously in keeping his spirits up through the recovery.
“Not only has James gone out of his way to do things for all the children of Grandview, but for me personally, he’s helped my son so much,” Ian said. “For me, the bottom line is he’s created a role model, someone that my son can look up to and emulate and I think that’s a very important thing.”
Not only did Sam make a visit to the Predators locker room before the game, reconnecting with Neal and also meeting his other favorite player, Roman Josi, but then made another stop after the game to snap more photos and catch up with the NHL All-Star who always has time for a text.
“It makes me feel great; just keeping in touch with him and telling him to stay strong, each day is going to get better and keep fighting and that’s what he did,” Neal said of Sam. “Every single game day, I get a message from him saying, ‘good luck’ or ‘get those two points.’
“Just the smile on his face when you see him come in the dressing room, how excited he is to meet all the guys; he’s just a special kid and I’m glad I’ve been able to grow a friendship with him and keep in touch.”