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Once in a Lifetime Experience

by Julie Dobbs / Dallas Stars

It's the morning after a late shootout loss to the New York Rangers. The alarm goes off and bags are packed, just as they always are, for what is another routine road trip for the Dallas Stars. It's just one of the 41 regular season road games, one of 82 games on the Stars’ grueling schedule. This time, the trip is to the 10-degree, blistering cold temperatures of St. Paul, Minnesota, to take on the Minnesota Wild.  For the Stars, it's just another road trip, and it's all business. For James Berg, it was the trip of a lifetime.

The trip came about unconventionally for James Berg.  Its roots can be drawn to the Stars home opener on October 14th. On this night, the Dallas Stars Foundation was having a "Player for a Day" raffle to kick off their fundraising for the 2010-2011 season. The raffle tickets were five dollars, and the winner would get to fly on the team plane to Minnesota to watch the Stars take on the Wild first hand. Fans were eager to win the opportunity, many buying dozens of raffle tickets to increase their chances of winning the Grand Prize. One of those fans, Mike, stopped by the Foundation table and made a very generous donation. In return, he would receive a couple hundred raffle tickets. Not surprisingly, the winning ticket at the end of the night belonged to Mike. As excited as Mike was to hear he had won the raffle, he never intended to go on the trip to Minnesota. Instead, he asked that the trip be donated to a deserving child.

Road Trip Photo Gallery
The Dallas Stars Foundation was happy to grant Mike's request, and immediately contacted one of their past grant recipients, The Clayton Dabney Foundation for Kids With Cancer, to share the news of this amazing gift. They knew just the kid for the job. It was seven-year-old hockey player James Berg, who is in the middle of fighting a tough battle with Leukemia. James is described by his parents as "a laid back child who is usually patient for his turn, but stubborn enough to know what he wants and cute and smart enough to know how to get it." Now, it was James's turn.

James and his dad, Chris, arrived to Love Field eager to embark on what would be a two-day excursion full of surprises to see their two favorite teams play each other in Minnesota, which ironically was the place where James was born. 

Once on the plane, James and Chris found their seats with the rest of the Dallas Stars staff in the front of the plane, as instructed, since the back of the plane is reserved for the players. As the players were boarding the plane, Stars Defenseman Stephane Robidas, who had been notified about James' presence on the trip, found the timid, yet excited seven year old and extended the offer for him to come to the back of the plane and sit with him. James eagerly joined him, but insisted that his Dad come along as well. While on the plane, James was presented with a package from the Dallas Stars. Inside the package were a couple of custom Dallas Stars jerseys, with the name BERG written on the back, one for James, and one for his dad Chris. Robidas insisted that James walk around to meet the other players and have them sign his new jersey. Now, he was ready to get suited up for the big game just like the rest of the Dallas Stars team. James spent the next couple hours with his new buddy, "Robi," who let him play on his iPad, which was loaded full of games that his seven-year-old son likes to play. 

Once in St. Paul, the players all had the evening off and went on their way. James and Chris called up James's childhood best friend, Nick, who lived in town with his family. They were able to meet up with them to go watch a youth hockey game that Nick's older brother was playing in. The good guys won, and afterwards, James and his dad headed back to the hotel to rest up to attend their second hockey game in as many days, the next one between the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild.

Sunday morning, James and Chris were invited to attend the pre-game meal in the hotel with the entire team. James was really excited about dining with the athletes, but maybe even more excited about all the ice cream he got to eat!  After the pre-game meal and a nap,  the team loaded up the busses to head over to the arena, where more surprises awaited.

The day at the arena was a whirlwind for James. Before the game started, he had the chance to meet with the on-ice officials, try on their jerseys, and get some pictures and autographs. Then, James was escorted down near the locker room to get ready for warm ups. He bumped into Coach Crawford, who took a time out from pre-game preparations to check in with his buddy James and see how he was doing. They chatted for about fifteen minutes until the team was ready to take the ice. As the players headed out of the locker room and onto the ice, James was positioned right at the end of the tunnel and gave all the players “knuckles” for good luck. He then followed them out, and headed to the
Stars bench where he got to sit, wide-eyed and up close and personal to watch the pre-game warm-ups.  He even had a little chat with Steve Ott as he took a breather on the bench, and James took the opportunity to tell him to make sure and get in a fight!

 Next on the agenda was a trip up to the press box where James got to sound the goal horn when the Wild took the ice! Once the game was underway, James took in the first period with Ralph and Razor in the play-by-play booth. Ralph even gave James the headset at one point so he could say hello to all the fans watching the game broadcast in Dallas. The fun continued during the 1st intermission as James got to ride on the "Red Hot Seats", Minnesota's version of the Fan Zam. Finally, James just wanted to sit down for a bit and watch his hockey idols play, so he and his dad found their seats in the lower level to take in the 2nd and 3rd periods, and the Stars won, 4-0.

That wasn't all, though. Through his conversations with James, Robidas knew that Nicklas Backstrom was James' favorite player for the Wild, and he and the Stars staff made the arrangements for James to meet Backstrom after the game. This was yet another surprise, as James had no idea that he was about to meet his hero! After the game, James was escorted downstairs outside of the Wild locker room where Nicklas Backstrom was waiting to say hello, with a few treats in store for him. Backstrom gave James an autographed stick, and took him on a personal tour of the Wild locker room, exceeding all expectations. It was an action-packed day for James , who didn't seem to have a care in the world as he just smiled and relished in the  VIP treatment, experiencing one surprise after another.

After all of the excitement from the game wore down, James' buddy, Robi, found him and escorted him to the players’ bus where he rode back to the airport. By this point, James was just one of the guys. Robi then extended the offer for James to sit with him again on the plane back to Texas, where he would return with new NHL friends, autographed sticks, jerseys, pictures, and memories to cherish forever.

 Lora Farris, executive director of the Dallas Stars Foundation, served as James' host for the weekend and played a large role in making sure that everything was perfect for the guest of honor.

“Our goal with the Dallas Stars Foundation is to make a difference in children’s lives, whether it’s one or one hundred.  And I think that’s what we accomplished with James that weekend.  It was really special to be a part of his experience.” It's an experience that Chris Berg says has changed his son.

"He is pumped up all the time, and has been since the trip. James is still talking about it in great detail every day, and for a seven-year old that's pretty impressive. It's the first thing that he speaks about, it has changed the way he views and looks at the hockey players, and the level of respect that he has for them. Now, they're not just famous athletes, they're his friends."

For updates on James and his progress, please visit his CaringBridge website:

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