As he smiled and gazed upon the tiny hearts that surrounded him, Alex Kovalev felt a special joy about the holiday gift he was able to share with them.
The Ottawa Senators forward, who endured heart problems as a youngster in Russia, knows all about the life in a children's hospital. And why a roomful for youngsters at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) so anxiously awaits this holiday visit from their hockey heroes each year.
"I dealt with some issues as a kid and it was a hard time," said Kovalev, who had a warm smile and kind word for every youngster he met during the Sens' annual CHEO visit on Tuesday afternoon. "For them, we try to support them and give them a smile on their faces and let them forget what they're dealing with.
"It all comes from experience. You know how these kids feel, and some of them won't be home for Christmas or New Year's. But we can make them happy and make them feel they're not alone. There's people around (today) who are happy to see them and wish them a Merry Christmas and make their lives a little easier."
Wide eyes and bright smiles abounded from the moment the Spartacat, the Senators' ambassador of fun, entered the hospital cafeteria. One by one, the players made their way into the room, each of them bearing a wrapped present to place under a decorated tree. They serenaded the Senators with a hockey-themed Christmas song composed for the occasion, then clapped along as the team's rookies offered up a hearty rendition of Jingle Bells
Bringing smiles to the Senators' faces was the sight of Jacob-Emmanuel Doyle, who reminded them of a promise he made a year ago when he was just beginning his long road to recovery from a brain hemorrhage that left him confined to a wheelchair. The 15-year-old youth said back then that if he ever walked again, the team owed him a Stanley Cup.
"I expect to see a nice big trophy this year," said Jacob-Emmanuel, who can indeed walk today with the assistance of just a cane.
Senators centre Mike Fisher said he and his teammates are up for making good on their half of that deal.
"We get the easier job," said a smiling Fisher. "He's had to work so hard to overcome some odds and it's nice to see him walking again, for sure."
The annual pre-Christmas visit — which was extended this year to include the Gatineau Hospital, which welcomed Senators goaltender Pascal Leclaire (mp3.file
) and defenceman Alex Picard
) — is a goodwill gesture that is always a hit with the children and their parents.
"It's been a really nice day for the kids," said Jennifer MacMurdo of Orleans, whose five-year-old daughter Heather has already undergone five open-heart surgeries. "We've been here three weeks (for a separate health issue) and it can get long and it can get tiring. So this is a really nice day for them."
Twelve-year-old Chris Harkness of South River, Ont., was excited about getting the opportunity to meet Fisher, his favourite Senators player.
"It's really cool," he said. "We just talked about our names."
Seeing the children and knowing the daily struggles they face was an eye-opener to a number of Senators players taking part in this event for the first time.
"It's a little tough to see sick kids, but I think it makes you appreciate what you've got and what you have," said Danish rookie centre Peter Regin
. "It's nice to see some smiles on their faces. It's fun for us to be able to help out and hopefully make their day."
But such knowledge also offers the Senators some extra inspiration — and perspective.
"We try to support them and give them a smile on their faces and let them forget what they're dealing with. It all comes from experience. You know how these kids feel, and some of them won't be home for Christmas or New Year's. But we can make them happy and make them feel they're not alone. There's people around (today) who are happy to see them and wish them a Merry Christmas and make their lives a little easier." - Alex Kovalev
"A lot of these kids are in her long-term and it's a tough time," said captain Daniel Alfredsson
. "But they handle it extremely well and it's kind of humbling to see how they face adversity and handle it. And you do establish a connection with some of them.
"It's a very good experience for us in the sense of just seeing how, by just showing up, we can put a smile on their faces and really lift their spirits a bit. It's a day appreciated by us and by them."
No wonder, then, that the Senators look forward to this day every December.
"Just coming here makes us feel pretty good, (being able to) put smiles on the kids' faces," said forward Chris Neil
. "Meanwhile, they put just as many smiles on our faces when we come here. It means a lot to us. It's an event that we love to do ... You see new faces and you see some faces from the past. You come back and they've got smiles on their faces.
"They've been in and out of the hospital and for us to come and see that, it's very heartwarming for us to be down here and be a part of it."
Said Fisher: "It's a special day. Some of the kids, we've seen the last few years, and it's always nice to be able to put some smiles on these kids' faces. They're going through some hard times and a time when some of them may not get home for Christmas. It's tough but at the same time, we're glad to be able to see some of the kids and help out in whatever way we can."