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Stars brighten children's spirits with hospital visits

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

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In the midst of the holiday season, the Dallas Stars took some time out of their busy schedule this week to brighten the spirits of sick children and to pass out some special gifts at hospitals in both Dallas and Fort Worth.

About half the team’s players visited Cook Children’s Medical Center in Fort Worth while the rest of them went to Children’s Medical Center in Dallas as part of the Stars’ annual hospital visits. Every player participated.

Mingling with children suffering from a variety of ailments who ranged in age from as young as one month old up to 17, the players talked to the kids, signed autographs for them, handed out blankets, and even went room-to-room to visit with children who were either too sick to leave their room or were bound to monitoring devices that prohibited movement.

It was an uplifting and profound experience for the players, seeing how just the simple gesture of talking with someone and giving them an autographed picture could result in such happiness.

“It’s nice to be invited and to see the smiles on their faces, just for a moment of the day,” said goaltender Marty Turco, who visited Cook Children’s in Fort Worth. “You can’t even imagine what they’re going through. It gives us a certain amount of perspective, but really, it just feels good to talk to them. The parents are certainly grateful, but to us, this is one of the great days of the year.”

“A lot of us are parents and to be able to come in and put a smile on a kid’s face from something as simple as a picture or an autograph, it’s pretty rewarding and we’re really happy we’re able to do it,” added captain Brenden Morrow.

The children certainly appreciated their efforts, as there were smiles all around from the approximately 75 children gathered in the Cook Children’s Medical Center Atrium for the meet-and-greet session. 

“It’s pretty awesome,” enthused 14-year-old patient Matt McDonald, clutching a thick stack of autographed Stars photos in his wheelchair. “My favorite people that I love to watch on TV and now I get to see them in real life and make contact with them and get their autographs and their picture, put them up on my wall at home and stuff.”

Staff from the hospital were impressed with the way in which the players engaged the children and took the time to meet and talk with them on a deeper level than just handing out pucks or signing autographs.

“They’re absolutely wonderful,” said Kathryn Davitt, community program manager at Cook Children’s. “They are very good with interacting with the kids, and from a job like mine, that’s always the part I always look at - people down at the level of the children and actually sitting with families. I think it’s really magical that they are Stars, but at the same time, they’re people that will take time to get to know the kids and the families. For a lot of families, they’ll never have an opportunity like this again, which makes it even more of a gift.”

The one thing that Davitt pointed out was how visits like these help to boost the kids’ spirits just by being something different and exciting for them to experience, in the midst of difficult circumstances.

“I think any time we have special visitors for the kids, it really helps them to kind of chronicle the time that they’re here and let them do something special that makes up for all of the things that they’re missing,” Davitt said. “I think around the holidays, it’s even more important, because they’re missing school parties, they’re missing church parties, and other things and then they get to go back to school and say, ‘Well, I didn’t get to my church party, but let me tell you what I did.’ I think they just really recognize that these are superstars who have taken time out to meet them and they can be proud of that, and they can use that as a way to mark their time here. So I think it’s just a blessing.”

Matt McDonald confirmed as much, beaming after a brief conversation with Turco, as he acquired another autographed photo to add to his collection.

“It’s pretty awesome, just getting to see him in person,” Matt said. “It’s a big break from just kind of lying in a bed all day watching Disney movies.”

And for these players who are fortunate enough to play hockey for a living, it was a bit of a taste of what twists life can sometimes take, as well as a sense of their own ability to make a difference.

“It’s good for the guys to come out and it can put everything into perspective pretty quick,” said winger Brad Winchester. “Just to see the kids and just talk and visit with them, it’s a special thing. In the holiday season, when you’re in a position to do what we do and to be role models for young kids, just to say hi and just visit with them a bit, it’s good to see their smiles.”

After meeting with the large crowd of children in the Atrium, the players moved on to do individual room-to-room visits, covering almost every area of the hospital, including pediatric intensive care, as well as cardiac, nephrology and epilepsy units where kids couldn’t leave their rooms because of the equipment they were hooked up to.

“We also have a lot of children in isolation this year, and so those are scattered throughout the floors,” Davitt noted. “Some of the children are in isolation, either for their protection or the protection of the other children. Some of the children whose immune systems are weakened could get sick, so we have a lot of children who are kind of behind closed doors.”

While making their rounds visiting the individual rooms, the Stars players handed out special blankets, in addition to the autographed photos and pucks, to commemorate the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer program.

“These blankets, which features a hockey-playing teddy bear along with the Hockey Fights Cancer logo, was designed to provide comfort for the children during their hospital stay.  The initiative is part of the National Hockey League Players’ Association’s (NHLPA) and the National Hockey League’s (NHL) Hockey Fights Cancer 10th Anniversary Celebration,” noted Carla Rosenberg, director of community marketing for the Dallas Stars.  “Most of the teams in the league do their visits to local Children’s Hospitals this time of year, so it’s a perfect opportunity to provide the children with something to warm their spirits during the holiday season.”

Cook Children’s was the location that both Turco and Morrow wanted to visit specifically, despite the fact that it was further away and that both of them had engagements at home that they needed to return to quickly. So Turco actually went through the process of securing a different mode of transportation - a helicopter! 

Unfortunately, with the weather overcast and rainy that day, they had to cancel the flight.

“I’d like to take a helicopter everywhere, just to save time,” Turco joked. “It made sense, but the low ceiling and the high pressure system that went through denied us that. We needed to save some time, but it didn’t work out. And they were willing to let us land here, which was super, too, unless there was an emergency, obviously. But if it was open, we would have done it.”

“No visibility, so that one got canceled,” Morrow added. “It would have been really fun. Now, I could be stuck in some traffic.”

Turco was especially eager to visit Cook Children’s, because of the added attraction that it’s the location of the special hockey-themed playroom called ‘The Zone’ that the Dallas Stars Foundation, in addition to several other charitable organizations including Garth Brooks’ Teammates for Kids, contributed heavily to. The room is scheduled to be completed in mid-January.

“This hospital holds a special place for me, in the amount of times I’ve been here to see kids and their families, introducing Garth Brooks here last year (during the NHL All-Star Festivities last January) was a special time,” Turco said. “He’s someone who you look up to who is a hero, who does things that you could only dream of doing for others. He’s just a role model for any human being, so that was pretty cool, and to come back here this year and have a playroom that we helped contribute to, it’s just special. 

“But that goes mostly to the things that the Dallas Stars Foundation has done, is doing and will continue to do. It’s a standard-bearer for sports foundations across the world and they’re going to continue to do things across the Dallas/Fort Worth area, kids and charities are going to continue to reap the benefits.”

“Several different organizations have contributed to the room,” Davitt noted. “It’s the National Hockey League, the Garth Brooks Foundation, the Troy Aikman Foundation and it is going to be amazing.  It’s not open yet, we’re shooting for mid-January. It’s beautiful, so it will be really exciting when that opens. It’s going to be a place with play areas for the children, as well as some really special elements - a theater, a kitchen where the kids can actually do some cooking activities and families can come in and relax. It’s beautiful, it will be really nice.”

And it’s another reminder of how the Stars continue to impact the D/FW community on and off the ice.

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