By Kinsey Janke / SARampage.com
Hockey players have always been a bit rougher around the edges. Black eyes, missing teeth, accents from around the world, and the unique slang of a locker room have always defined the stereotype.
But sitting in a room on the fifth floor of Children’s Hospital of San Antonio, the stereotype couldn’t be further from the truth.
The full San Antonio Rampage roster, clad in their road blacks, sat in mismatched groups, their size making them look slightly out of place in a room that was clearly designed for children. Some of the 26 players in attendance talked amongst themselves, others waited quietly with smiles on their faces.
In its fifth year, the Face-Off Against Kids Cancer initiative pairs each member of the Rampage with a child being treated in the Centers for Oncology and Blood Disorders for a series of social events throughout the Rampage season.
The first event, held Wednesday, Oct. 23, was a board game and Halloween cookie decorating party, in which the players met their buddies and their families for the first time.
“I just like getting to know the kids. It’s nice to come out and play games with them and put smiles on their faces,” said Rampage defenseman Colby Robak. “They’re appreciative of it, and it’s something that makes you feel good. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Robak is in his third year participating in the program and it’s easy to see how much he enjoys it.
Greeting his buddy and his two siblings, Robak offers up a hand to high-five – his grin splitting his face as he receives a warm welcome from all three of the children. As he shows them to a table in the back his buddy’s sister stares hard at his black eye.
The bruising is from a high stick Robak took during the October 18 game against Texas, and though it has faded considerably, it still sticks out against his cheek.
“Is that a real black eye?” she asks, looking skeptical.
Robak grins and laughs, shaking his head and gesturing to the decorations around him.
“Just part of my Halloween costume. Pretty good, huh?”
Similar exchanges crop up all over the room. In one corner, Zach Miskovic and Jack Combs can be heard playing Yahtzee with their buddy, unable to win even a game against him.
Up front, Mike Mottau and Bobby Butler are locked into a tense game of Ice Breaker with their buddy, while at the next table, Logan Shaw and Vince Trocheck are taking their game of Hungry-Hungry Hippos as serious as they would a Rampage game.
“It’s awesome,” said Butler. “It’s a great experience to come out here and hang out and get to know people and the little guys that are struggling. It’s a great cause, and it’s been a fun night.”
Butler explains that the mother of his buddy was beyond pleased at the interaction, telling them that the permanent grin on her son’s face was not like him, and that it was great seeing him smile like that.
Though the event is centered on the children and bringing some light to their world, it’s evident that the players are having just as much fun, both at the hospital and with the other events that occur throughout the season.
“We’ve gone to the Rodeo and to SeaWorld in the past,” said Rampage captain Greg Rallo. “Just a lot of really fun times where not only the kids have a good time, but I think our players have a really good time, too.”
Such is evident with the lengths the players go to support their buddies. The team hosts an event every month throughout the season, but several players go above-and-beyond. Surprise hospital visits have become the norm and last year two Rampage players even purchased four tickets for their buddy to see Justin Bieber at AT&T Center.
Crystal De Hoyas is another parent who already can see the positive difference that the event has had on her child. Just 14-years-old, her daughter, Savannah, is in remission after nine months of hard chemotherapy. Diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic leukemia, Savannah just completed her first month of low chemotherapy, a less intense procedure that will last for the next two years, ensuring that the return of the cancer will not occur.
“I think just the experience of getting to know the hockey players and knowing that there are people who care about her and what to know what she’s going through and how they could help her is great,” said De Hoyas.
The experience is often compared to the bond between a brother and sister, and the similarities, even in just two hours, are striking. At the end of the night, the Rampage players gathered around their buddies, smiling wide for a group picture.
“I tell everyone that these look like big, gruff, hockey players that get on the ice and push each other around, but when they’re with the kids, they are the nicest, sweetest, and kindest people,” said Brandy Ralston-Lint, the public relations program manager for the Children’s Hospital.
Ralston-Lint’s son Connor was a participant in the inaugural Face-Off event, paired up with former Rampage goalie, Josh Tordjman. To this day, Connor still speaks about Josh, and proudly displays one of Tordjman’s old sticks in his bedroom.
“It’s a chance for the kids to not think about cancer for one night,” said Ralston-Lint.
“For one night, they can just come and be a kid. They don’t have to worry about chemo. They don’t have to worry about shots, or needles, or pokes, or pricks, and blood counts and everything else. They’re coming here to have fun. They can worry about Candy Land.”