Tuesday, December 12, 2017

San Jose Sharks alumni bring goodwill to fire victims

The scene inside the arena in Santa Rosa was a fantasy come true.
It was part Charles Dickens’ novel, part Charlie Brown’s Christmas, and part Charlton Heston comes riding to the rescue.
There were San Jose Sharks’ legends, sitting on a bench next to a Christmas tree taller than Zdeno Chara, playing a benefit pick-up hockey game against an ordinary group of extraordinary policemen and firefighters on a small indoor rink with garland hanging from the rafters and a few hundred fans sitting in the stands with wide eyes and big smiles as if Christmas morning had arrived and their stockings and hearts had been filled.
You half expected Tiny Tim Ratchit to skate out and take a shift with Owen Nolan, Mike Ricci, or Dan Boyle.
For the ex-Sharks, the giddy spectacle in the arena at least temporary erased the grim sight they had witnessed only a few blocks away a few hours earlier. En route to the rink, their bus took a detour through the Coffey Park neighborhood that had been wiped out by the North Bay wildfire in October, leaving more than 8,000 people homeless. It reminded the Sharks alums of their true mission of coming to Santa Rosa.
“I have been here before to see the destruction, but I wanted the other players to see it,” said Doug Murray, former Sharks defenseman who is now president of the newly-formed Sharks Alumni Foundation.
“It really hits home. Everybody knows what happened, but you really don’t know until you see it.”
What the Sharks Alumni Foundation saw in the end was an opportunity to go on a power play and help a community still reeling. The game was born out of a phone call from Sharks broadcaster and former player Jamie Baker to Redwood Empire Ice Arena general manager Kevin McCool offering assistance following the devastating fires. It coincided with the forming of the Sharks Alumni Foundation in November that led to a Bay Area Fire Relief Game and a bus trip to Santa Rosa on Dec. 8 that resulted in a Christmas miracle of sorts.
The event raised more than $40,000 for Mark West Youth Club Little League, Speedway Children’s Charities in Sonoma, Santa Rosa Firefighters Association -Toys for Kids Program, and Mill Valley Association of Volunteer Firefighters – Bikes for Firestorm 2017 Victims. However, the game at the center of it hopefully did more in the long term. It raised the collective spirits of first responders and their families and the local youth sports community. According to Dawnielle Chaney, general manager of the Sharks Alumni Foundation, 110 of the 435 Mark West Youth Club Little Leaguers in the Santa Rosa lost their homes in the North Bay wildfires.
“We’re not here for fundraising. This is a goodwill game,” Murray said. “The bigger thing is creating a fun event and having people come here and have a few laughs.”
In that case, the Sharks Alumni Foundation scored big time.  A few minutes into their game against the Guns N Hoses Hockey Club, the pros were dominating the skilled, albeit amateur, skaters comprised of law enforcement and fire fighting personnel. So much so that Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov pretended to nap. Nabby literally laid down in the goal mouth, resting one hand against his chin as his teammates possessed the puck on the other end of the ice.
All this was done in the name of fun and games.
Soon after, however, Nabby was called on to make a save against a Guns N Hoses player trying to execute a penalty shot. He was distracted when three Sharks players on the bench hurled their sticks in his path.
Players on both sides smiled. Good-natured kidding was welcomed after months of misfortune.
The Sharks’ contingent – led by former player and current general manager Doug Wilson – actually invited three local players to suit up with the alumni team. One of them was Robert Nappi, a Rancho Adobe Fire District firefighter who, on the horrific night of Oct. 8, was on the frontlines courageously helping people evacuate their homes. The next day he returned to his own home in Coffey Park to discover it had been burned to the ground.
Two months later, Nappi, like many others around him, were still in a need of a boost. The Sharks gave him an assist, two in fact. Nappi scored the third goal of the benefit pick-up game on assists from Ricci and Nabokov.
Ironically, Nappi’s jersey number on this special night was No. 9, playing in an arena where only one player has had his hockey jersey retired – also No. 9. No, not Gordie Howe. That number and honor belongs to the Charles Schulz, who created the comic strip Peanuts and owned the Redwood Empire Ice Arena – a.k.a. Snoopy’s Home Ice – that hosts annually the Senior World Hockey Tournament.
It was fitting that Schulz’s widow, Jean, was on hand for the ceremonial puck drop on this remarkable evening. Their hillside home in Santa Rosa was also destroyed by the wildfires.
You get the big picture. The North Bay wildfires impacted thousands of people, not just a few hundred inside the Snoopy’s Home Ice and the emotional toll is far reaching and still extends into this holiday season. The TV cameras may go away once the fires are extinguished, but the images of the catastrophic event that occurred in a matter of minutes overnight on Oct. 8 is forever ingrained in the minds of the people truly impacted.
What the San Jose Sharks Alumni Foundation did was deliver good deed like Santa Claus. The former players were reindeer and Doug Murray was their St. Nick and when they packed up their gear and departed the Redwood Empire Ice Arena on Dec. 8 they behind a trail of smiles and laughs with the gift of selfies and spirited play on the ice.
For those first responders who participated in the hockey game and the people in attendance who saw it, at least for one night it put the merry back in Merry Christmas.


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