Oilers reach out

Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe borrows six-year-old Wyatt Oliver's cowboy hat as Wyatt poses with...

Edmonton Oilers GM Kevin Lowe borrows six-year-old Wyatt Oliver's cowboy hat as Wyatt poses with his brothers -- five-year-old Preston Oliver, back, and three-year-old Tristen Oliver. The Oilers were out for a visit to the Stollery Children's Hospital Tuesday. (Edmonton Sun/Walter Tychnowicz)

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:32 AM ET

The idea, when an athlete visits the Stollery Children's Hospital, is to brighten up a sick kid's day.

Georges Laraque and Craig Simpson know from years of experience that it's almost always the other way around - that it's the kids who end up touching the athlete's heart.

"You never leave this building feeling the same as when you walk in," said the Edmonton Oilers assistant coach after the club took part in the NHL's Reach the Day campaign yesterday.

"You take a piece of each and every one of them. As an athlete and a player, you might be feeling sorry for yourself about how you're playing, or you feel like the world is against you. You come here and it gives such balance to your life."

Nobody knows that more than Laraque. When he needs a break from the overwhelming stress that comes from being an NHL policeman, he visits the Stollery. A couple of hours spent clowning around with terminally ill children puts everything in perspective.

"You know how tough the job is," he said. "I don't just have to think about playing hockey, I have have to think about fighting, who I have to worry about the next night, a million other things.

"But when I visit there the pressure is totally off. This kid is worried about his life and I'm worried about hockey stuff? Forget it. There's other things in life but hockey. You realize that when you go to these hospitals."

DUCKED OUT

Laraque, a spokesman for Shaken Baby Syndrome awareness, is a regular at the Stollery. He was there yesterday but ducked out before the cameras arrived.

"They have my number, they call me all the time," he said. "I'll always go there. It's really gratifying to be able to make them smile, the kids and their parents, with all the pain they're going through. It makes you feel special that you're able to do that."

But seeing five-year-olds ravaged by cancer, hooked up to machines or resigned to the fact they're never getting out of there seems so sad and unfair that sometimes Laraque needs a few moments to compose himself afterwards.

"The telethon they just had was one of the hardest things ever," he said. "Usually when I go there I visit five to seven rooms. This time I did about 40. There were tears in my eyes. It was really tough. After I left I had to go downstairs for an interview and I couldn't even talk.

"But as hard as it is sometimes, you can't show it. Your purpose is to make them happy. Deep down it's hard, but it's worth it if you can make them smile."

Simpson's first visit came in 1987, when he tagged along with his buddy, Stollery regular Wayne Gretzky.

"It was my first Christmas in Edmonton. I stayed with he and Janet and on Christmas Day we came here and visited the kids," Simpson said.

"He said one thing that always stuck with me: As a professional athlete, regardless of your skill level, you have a unique opportunity to make a difference.

"Craig Simpson the Oiler in the middle of his career has a much bigger impact than a 55-year-old Craig Simpson where it's 'Who the heck are you?'

"You might be the same person, but spend the time (in your prime). That's what always stuck with me."

Simpson, a spokesman for cystic fibrosis when he played in Pittsburgh and muscular dystrophy as an Oilers, now hosts the Never Say Never golf tournament for spinal cord research.

TIME WITH KIDS

"As a player I always felt that coming here and spending time with kids and their parents, who are fighting such a battle, and for some of them there's a real chance they won't win that battle, I've always found that you draw incredible strength from that.

"Every time you come here you go away thinking, 'Why don't I come here more.' You should be. It has a huge impact when you're playing, to lighten up a kid's day."


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