|Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson shares a photo and a smile with Hiba Allam, a 13-year-old patient at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario during their annula holiday visit (Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photography/OSHC).
With every photo she shared, young Hiba Allam positively beamed with a smile that could light up the darkest of spaces.
"It's a happy day for all the kids at CHEO," the 13-year-old from Bells Corners said, summing up the feeling of a room full of patients who felt the warmth of nearly two dozen of their very own red-clad Santa Clauses.
While kids like 13-year-old Hiba face difficult challenges every day — she's been undergoing chemotherapy treatments for the last six months for leukemia at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario — the annual holiday visit by Ottawa Senators players provides a welcome respite from it all, if even for just a short period of time. But it is a day highly anticipated each year by all involved.
"It’s great to come here and see the smiles on the kids’ faces and some of the parents’ places," said Senators defenceman Chris Phillips
, a veteran of these little missions of joy. "When they’re here, it’s not a happy place and somewhere that you want to be, especially near the holidays. But if we can put smiles on their faces, even for a couple of hours to lift their spirits, and ours as well ... Just to see the impact we have with them feels good and it makes you feel good about being here. Everybody really enjoys it."
Added centre Jason Spezza
: "It’s always a day we look forward to, just being able to put smiles on the kids’ faces. A lot of them have gone through a pretty tough time and to create some excitement here and just to be present in the hospital is always something that’s exciting for us, and we look forward to it so we can cheer them up.
"You see how positive they are and how much positive energy they have … nothing gets the kids down, and it’s great to see the perspective they have on things."
Spezza was the player Allam wanted to meet most of all, and she found herself at a loss for words to describe the moment after it came true. Although the joyful look that took over virtually ever inch of her face did the trick well enough.
"It's very exciting," she said. "You don't get to meet the Senators every day ... I find all of them very special, and they’re very, very nice people.”
Parents see the value in this day of holiday fun, too, as they watch their youngsters light up.
"It just gives them something to look forward to," said Joanne Laframboise of Ottawa, whose 17-year-old daughter, Lisa, has been battling leukemia for more than two years. "It helps a lot. We asked well in advance when they were coming."
It's days like this that also help the Senators put their own lives into perspective.
"Your worries go away pretty quick after seeing these situations," said centre Zenon Konopka
, who joined Kaspars Daugavins
in wearing Santa hats for the occasion. "That goal you missed last week or that faceoff you didn’t win goes away in a hurry. It reminds you about how blessed we are and how we should give back to the community in these situations."
Forward Nick Foligno
echoed that sentiment, saying the children "put things into perspective."
"Sometimes, you don’t realize what you’re complaining about and they’re acting so great and having such a great time, and they have way more life-threatening things going on," he said. "It really puts life into perspective and makes you realize hockey is just a game. We’re very lucky to do what we do and come here to help these people."