Earlier this month, 15-year old Matthew Von Dollen got a chance to be the 24th member of the New York Rangers roster for four very special days from November 2-5.
Matthew, who suffers from a rare seizure disorder, had asked the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Hudson Valley if he could attend a Rangers game with Hall of Famer Mark Messier. Together the New York Rangers, and the Garden of Dreams Foundation, made his wish come true, providing him with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that surpassed his greatest expectations.
Early on the morning of November 2, Matthew and his family, including his parents and three siblings, arrived at the MSG Training Center to begin the first stage of his wish. After watching the team practice with Rangers broadcasters Dave Maloney and Joe Micheletti, the youngster had his first of many speechless moments during his first encounters with Rangers players.
Those players were defensemen Dan Girardi
and Jason Strudwick, who strolled up to Matthew and treated him like one of their own.
"Where's this Matthew kid I keep hearing about?" asked Brendan Shanahan moments later in a jestful way as he introduced himself and presented Matthew with a personally autographed stick. Waiting in the wings were Scott Gomez, Ryan Hollweg, Colton Orr Marcel Hossa, Nigel Dawes, Chris Drury and Petr Prucha, who all wanted to meet the young man who had captured the Rangers' hearts and would soon enjoy any child’s dream of watching a game with the "Captain."
As he toured the facility, Matthew made his way into the players' lounge, where he met with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist
. Matthew had not seen Lundqvist enter the room, and when he noticed him, his mouth dropped open in shock. Lundqvist presented Matthew with a brand new pair of skates, and in a comedic moment, Matthew's father asked, "Do you know who this is?!" to which he responded "Of course I do, it’s King Henrik!"
The next stop was the equipment room, where Matthew was awed by all the jerseys, sticks and pucks. Rangers training staff Acacio Marques and Beets Johnson then presented him with a Rangers warm-up suit, which led to another one of Matthew's many speechless moments.
"You are all crazy, great crazy!" said Matthew's dad as his arms overflowed with gifts from the Rangers organization.
At the end of his Training Center visit, head coach Tom Renney presented Matthew with a framed team salute photo, autographed by all of the Rangers. Renney also gave Matthew 10 additional tickets to the November 5 game against Philadelphia so that he could invite his grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins to the game to see him fulfill his wish to watch a game with Mark Messier.
It was a monumental moment for Matthew, who had started playing street hockey with his cousins when he was a young kid. In fact, his extended family is a huge reason why he became such a hockey fan.
Matthew got into the sport, and became a Messier fan, back in 1994 when he was just 2 years old. He'd stay up late at night with his grandfather, unable to sleep due to his condition, and watched Messier lead the Rangers to the Stanley Cup in 1994.
From that moment on, Messier was a very important figure in Matthew's life. For his sixth birthday party, he couldn't understand why his mom couldn't simply call and invite Messier to his party. Indeed, Matthew doesn't just view Messier as his hero; he is an inspirational friend who has helped him through the toughest moments of his life and multiple brain surgeries.
After spending November 4 at the Knicks home opener, where he attended shoot-around and met several players, Matthew's big day finally arrived on the morning of November 5. The day began with a special trip to Radio City Music Hall where Matthew and his family were treated to a private tour of the renowned landmark. Following Radio City, Matthew and his family dined at the ESPN Zone in Times Square. That evening, as Matthew and his family headed to The Garden for the game, Matthew was stunned to see his name on the Seventh Avenue Marquee, welcoming him to his wish day. The entire Von Dollen family received personalized jerseys with their last name on the back and Messier's No. 11, which they wore with great pride as they walked down Seventh Avenue towards the Garden.
Matthew had been expecting to meet Messier later on in the evening, just before the start of the game. However, as Matthew awaited an all-access tour of the facility with a MSG tour guide, Messier emerged to surprise his young fan. The only word a stunned Matthew could muster was "Messier" as the two locked in an emotional embrace.
From that moment on, the two were inseparable. If Messier moved, Matthew moved and if Messier laughed, Matthew laughed with him.
Matthew had never owned a Messier jersey – another one of his lifelong dreams came true as Messier himself handed Matthew his very own No. 11 Messier jersey, in a remarkably touching moment. Matthew immediately pulled the Messier jersey over his other Rangers jersey and wore, it with great honor all night long.
Messier then took Matthew into the locker-room for a brief pre-game visit. There, he met his favorite current Ranger, Sean Avery
, who signed and gave Matthew one of his sticks.
Next, Matthew had another opportunity of a lifetime; the chance to interview the Captain one-on-one. Sitting down with MSG Network, he spoke with Messier on camera -- asking questions about former teammates Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Adam Graves, the current team, and Messier’s multiple Stanley Cup championships.
After watching warm-ups from the bench and talking with Joe Micheletti and Sam Rosen, Matthew made his way up to the luxury suite where his family would be watching the game with Messier. Matthew introduced "his new friend Mark" to the rest of his extended family before numerous special guests popped in and Matthew himself was introduced alongside Mark to the sellout crowd on the GardenVision.
Each and every former Rangers player in the building that night also paid a visit to Matthew. The parade of alumni included Rod Gilbert, Ron Greschner, Nick Fotiu and Jeff Beukeboom. Celebrity guests Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon also came by for a brief visit with Mark and the youngster to mark the special occasion.
At the end of the night, a 2-0 shutout win over the Flyers, Matthew and Messier did not say goodbye, but rather "see you again!" They shared another hug and took one more photo before parting ways.
Matthew still had one more visit to make to the players to congratulate them on a hard-earned victory. While waiting for them to emerge from the locker room, Matthew and his siblings got a special Zamboni ride on the Garden ice.
Finally, Matthew made his way back to the locker room. As Jaromir Jagr, Shanahan and the rest of the Rangers finished dressing after the game, they all said their good-byes, treating Matthew more like a teammate than a fan.
"This was the best day of my life!" Matthew exclaimed at the end of the night, flashing a smile that refused to fade away.
For more information about the Garden of Dreams Foundation, a non profit charity that works closely with all areas of Madison Square Garden, including the Rangers, Knicks, Liberty, MSG Entertainment, MSG Media and fuse to "make dreams come true for kids in crisis,” please log onto gardenofdreamsfoundation.org