Seven-year-old Mathieu Vaillancourt shyly approached Derek MacKenzie during a media event at Skater's Edge on Lasalle, June 11.
As the Columbus Blue Jackets’ forward bent down to the youngster's level, Mathieu said quietly, “Thank you for the new hockey equipment.”
MacKenzie smiled and wrapped Mathieu in a hug. After all, it's the moments like that one which mean the most to the NHLer.
Mathieu, who is on his final stretch of Leukemia treatments, was one of 14 children in the Greater Sudbury area who was outfitted with new hockey equipment this past season, through a partnership with Skaters Edge, the Northern Ontario Families of Children with Cancer (NOFCC) and the NHL Players' Association (NHLPA) Goals and Dreams Fund.
The NHLPA Goals and Dreams fund, through the donation of equipment grants, has given more than 60,000 deserving children the opportunity to play hockey.
"A lot of these kids have missed some time due to their sickness," MacKenzie said. "We thought this was a great opportunity, once they got back on their feet and felt like playing hockey again, to bring them in the store and re-suit them up with some equipment that they may have outgrown."
The Sudbury native said he's always eager to spend time with the children who have benefited from the program.
"It's a long season and we go through some ups and downs, but when you get a chance to listen to their stories and see how tough they are, it puts things in perspective," he said. "These kids are full of energy and it's nice to spend time with them — hopefully some of their qualities rub off on the rest of us."
Dayna Caruso, volunteer and fund development co-ordinator with the NOFCC, said the organization applied for the grants on MacKenzie's suggestion.
"He's done a golf tournament for us for the past three years and has raised $50,000 to support NOFCC," Caruso said. "We were to choose the children who needed equipment."
She said the families have been grateful for the assistance, and the children were excited to get new equipment that was fitted to them, rather than hand-me-downs from older siblings.
Each child was given a $500 grant through the NHLPA to get outfitted in top-of-the-line gear. Matt Zawierzeniec, co-owner of Skater's Edge, said the store was thrilled to be a part of the program.
"We were just amazed to hear every kid's story and get the equipment on them and know they are going to be one the ice," he said. "I've never seen smiles like that on kids' faces."
For more information on the Goals and Dreams Fund, visit nhlpa.com.