On the ice, he's one of the National Hockey League's true tough guys.
But get Chris Neil talking about a special haven that does so much for the community's children and their families, and the rugged Ottawa Senators forward shows a much softer side.
"Everything thinks it's such a gloomy place," Neil said of Roger's House, the pediatric palliative care facility for whom he and his wife, Caitlin, serve as honorary chairs. "But being able to go down there ... it lifts you up, almost, to see the kids go through stuff and how they respond and how happy they are. It's a warm spot in my heart and it always will be."
With that thought in mind, the Neils were on hand at Scotiabank Place today to introduce "Roger's Dream Team," a special group of children who will take part in the ninth annual Scotiabank Walk, Roll & Run for Roger's House, presented by the Ottawa Citizen, which will take place at the Senators' home arena on June 17.
Walk, Roll & Run is one of two key fundraisers held each year by the Sens Foundation in support of Roger's House, its charity of choice. Events include the Enterprise 5 km, the Price Waterhouse Coopers 2 km and the Irving Oil tot-trot for the kids. Chris and Caitlin Neil will be the coach and general manager, respectively, of the Roger's Dream Team, which includes 10 children who have required care at Roger's House.
Nine-year-old Jordyn Deveau Yurich's smile leaves no doubt about how special Roger's House is to her, and why she was happy to talk about it during a news conference held earlier today at Scotiabank Place.
"For the kids that need a lot of help, their parents can have a break and they can go there as well," said Deveau Yurich, from Lombardy, Ont., who agreed Roger's House is "a happy place" for her. "Two years ago, I got scoliosis really, really bad and they put rods in. I was at CHEO for two weeks, I think. Then I went to Roger's House, so that was really nice."
And those who lend a hand to Walk, Roll & Run — either through participation or donations — help keep that feeling going. Last year's event raised $192,000 for Roger's House, with many of the participants being those who have been touched by the facility in some way.
"Those families now come out and walk, roll and run together surrounded by their extended families, friends and neighbours," said Sens Foundation president Danielle Robinson. "Some have been with us as Roger's Dream Team members. Others have been with us as Roger's All-Stars, those children who have passed away but are never far from our hearts and minds. The number of families that come out and celebrate their special angel continues to grow each year."
The Sens Foundation covers 25 per cent of the operating funds for Roger's House, which places special importance on events such as Walk, Roll & Run. For many in the community who understand that vital role Roger's House plays in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, this his become an annual Father's Day tradition.
"It is the perfect way to come together as a family, have fun and really do some good at the same time," said Robinson.
Funds raised by Walk, Roll & Run help Roger's House acquire the specialized equipment that allows staff there to provide the best care and comfort for its patients.
"The families of Roger's House face some of the greatest challenges and stresses any family can face," said Lloyd Cowin, the facility's executive director. "With our community's support, we can ease some of that pressure and allow them to get the help they need when they need it most."
The Neils, who have three young children of their own, have seen their connection to Roger's House grow even stronger since taking over the honorary chair role from former Senators centre Mike Fisher, a good friend of both Neilson and Neil.
"It's a facility that you hope stays empty but the reality is, it doesn't," said Chris Neil. "We've been told what the parents have gone through down there and it's remarkable. It's an unbelievable place to visit. If you ever have the opportunity to go there, I highly suggest you do it and don't hesitate to donate money or your time ... anything you can possibly do to help out Roger's House."
Added Caitlin Neil: "Roger's House, to us, seems like such a great place in the community for families to get the support that they need. We can't even imagine (going through) that and our life is extremely busy. So just knowing there is a place like Roger's House for families to use in this community is just incredible."