As the 13-year-old boy finished the unexpected on-ice tutorial given by his absolute favorite NHL star, he felt exhausted on the inside, but on the outside that big, wide grin told a different story.
Like kids his age battling cancer and other childhood diseases, smiles can often be hard to come by in Riley Wild’s world. But for one day last March, he managed to forget the 40 weeks of chemotherapy than made him nauseous for days, and more than 30 radiation treatments that his young body had to endure after doctors removed a softball-sized tumor from his abdomen.
Once he felt up to it, Riley’s wish was to skate with the Red Wings. What he got was a dream come true when his favor player, center Pavel Datsyuk
, spent nearly an hour with him on the ice, giving him tips on shooting, puck-handling, and more.
“When I first got out there, I was nervous,” Riley recalled. “But then it wasn’t as bad.”
It was a day Riley will never forget. And one that earned the Red Wings’ organization national recognition as a world champion for children.
Last month, the Wings received a 2011 Chris Greicius Celebrity Award from the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America. The award symbolizes the essence of the Make-A-Wish mission, which is to grant wishes to every qualified child, while enhancing the quality of life with hope, strength and joy.
“Pav did an unbelievable job that day,” Wings coach Mike Babcock said. “You do it for the kids, but we do it for ourselves too, because it makes you feel good. These are great kids that have had challenging lives. And they have accepted that and we’re trying to help them.
“We’ve got good guys. That’s all there is to it. Pav went beyond the call of duty that day – to say the least – and we’re proud of Pav, and not just for the way he plays.”
Make-A-Wish officials will present the team with the Chris Greicius Celebrity Award during a pre-game presentation before the Tampa Bay game this Wednesday.
In its nomination letter, the Michigan chapter praised the Red Wings for their continued support of the Make-A-Wish mission:“With the pushes and pulls on their time and the pressure to be excellent year after year, the team’s outstanding treatment of our wish children is so telling of their unparalleled character, leadership and heart.”
For decades, the Wings and their players have carried a torch for children’s charities, whether it was through the United Way, March of Dimes or Children’s Hospital of Michigan. Now, in a time when pro athletes garner as many headlines for their mischief and mayhem, it’s refreshing to know that many are still civic-minded.
“Not everything is about hockey,” Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg
said. “There are a lot of things outside of hockey that are more important, and when you see kids like this, and you go to hospitals, it reminds you of those important things.
“We want to do these things, so whenever we get the extra time for requests, we have fun doing it. It really makes you happy, too. You go home and you talk about it with your family and it keeps you going.”
As sports celebrities, the players and coaches fully understand their mission and their importance in the community, especially among their young impressionable fans. It’s a position that the players clearly don’t take lightly, but they certainly don’t do it for the acknowledgment, either.
However, it’s still an honor to be acknowledged, Babcock said.
“I’m thrilled to death, because to me, that’s an example of how the Red Wings want to be,” he said. “We don’t do the research to make them better. We’re not the doctors. All we are, are some guys who care about kids.
“Mr. Ilitch owns the team, and he believes in winning, but he believes in giving back to the community and development, too, and rallying the state. I think this is all part of it. And I believe this can also lead to winning.”
Riley’s experience wasn’t the only wish granted by the Wings through Make-A-Wish. Last December, a Michigan teen with Cystic Fibrosis attended a Wings’ game, watched warm-ups from the Wings’ penalty box, and skated to center ice prior to the national anthem as the Youth Hockey Skater of the Game.
“Our players realize that life has been pretty good to us, and it’s an opportunity for people in our organization to help others that are in need,” Wings general manager Ken Holland said. “A lot of our players are involved in a lot of different things to help put back in the community. So to be honored with this award by Make-A-Wish is a special honor.”
Besides the Wings, the Make-A-Wish Foundation also extended the national award this year to entertainer Justin Bieber, Nickelodeon, Sesame Street, and Cake Boss Buddy Valastro.
“I’m sure that there are a thousand difference corporations and companies that do amazing things for Make-A-Wish,” said Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment. “For us to be singled out, and the way they singled us out – it was top to bottom with the players, the coaches, it was management, it was everybody us. And that’s something that we take great pride in and celebrate.”
Thankfully, Riley is now in remission, and he continues to play hockey and caddy at a golf club near his Minnesota home. But as his father, Mark Wild, watched his son skate with Datsyuk last March, it was hard for dad to hold back his emotions.
“He just wants to go, go, go,” he said of his son. “Obviously, it was quite incredibly scaring for him when he was diagnosed, but once he got into treatment he was like, ‘Well, this is my thing right now.’ He’s just never complained.”
The players don’t grumble, either.
“Every chance we have to do stuff like this, especially when Pav and I were out there skating with Riley,” Zetterberg said, ‘it was a great thing and a lot of fun. You saw it in his eyes; there was a lot of joy. … We really appreciate the chance to do things like that.” Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill