The kids are there every night after every game, waiting for Travis Hamonic in the tunnel outside the locker room.
Some are teenagers. Some are young boys or girls. Most are hockey fans, though there have been a few who didn't know much about the sport until Hamonic invited them to be his guest at Nassau Coliseum.
The one common thread that runs through the group is the one they wish they didn't share: Like Hamonic, all have lost a parent at a young age, and, like Hamonic, all are struggling to deal with that reality.
"It's tough," Hamonic said. "I play a game for a living. What these kids are going through right now is real life. There's more to life than a game. I'm reminded of that every night.''
Since January 2012, Hamonic has met with at least one child and his family after every Islanders home game, even the ones in which he hasn't been able to play because he is on injured reserve. That's more than 100 kids he has hosted.
Hamonic does even more than shake hands, pose for photographs and sign sticks for the children, with whom the Islanders connect him through various Long Island support groups. He takes them on a behind-the-scenes tour, sits them down at his locker and opens up to them about how his life turned upside down at age 10 when his father, Gerald, died of a heart attack.
The youngest of four, Hamonic, 24, describes his early childhood in idyllic terms, growing up on Hamonic Farms, a piece of land outside of St. Malo, Manitoba. When he wasn't in school or helping out on the farm, Hamonic was on the ice at St. Malo Arena. Gerald was usually there, watching him from his regular perch in the top left corner of the arena.
Sudden loss of his father
In the middle of the wheat harvest season, on Sept. 15, 2000, Travis was awakened by his sister Melissa's screaming. His father was on a stretcher and was being taken out of the house.
The last memory Hamonic has said he has of his father is of Gerald reaching out to grab his hand. Gerald Hamonic never came home, dying of a massive heart attack at the age of 44.
"I learned at a pretty young age that your life can get uprooted and flipped upside down pretty quickly," Hamonic said.
Travis and his father had planned to see an NHL preseason game in Winnipeg between the Canucks and Avalanche. Gerald had bought the tickets as a bonding outing with his youngest son. Instead, several weeks after his father's death, Travis attended the game with his mother. It's a ritual they continued for years.
Hockey became Hamonic's hope and his escape.
"After my dad died, it was hockey, hockey, hockey," he said. "On the ice, it was the only place it felt . . . free. I would literally get to the rink and skate for hours before my practice, sometimes four or five hours a day.''
Change of plans
Without Gerald to run things, the farm that had been in their family for four generations was sold. When Hamonic was 13, they moved to Winnipeg and his mother got a job as a nurse.
Hamonic's hockey career flourished in Winnipeg. At age 17, he was chosen by the Islanders in the second round of the draft. After two years playing at AHL Bridgeport, he got the call-up to join the team.
"It was a weird chain of events," Hamonic said. "If he was alive, I would be a farmer, 100 percent. That's no knock to my profession. I'm grateful and I know how blessed to play in the NHL. But I would have been OK being a farmer, too."
Though Gerald never got to see him play in the NHL, Hamonic has found plenty of ways to honor his father in his new career. Before every game, he looks up to the northeast corner of Nassau Coliseum, top left from his view on the bench, because this is the area his father sat in to watch him skate in St. Malo. He also writes his father's name on the taped nob part of every stick.
When he was 20, Hamonic got his first tattoo, an exact replica of Gerald's signature. He later got another tattoo, an elaborately detailed scene of Hamonic farm with his father driving a combine. Yet the biggest way he honors his father and their relationship is by talking about him and what it was like to lose him with the young children he meets after every game.Sharing experiences
"When I turned pro, there were still grief issues I was going through, and still am to this day," Hamonic said. "When I look back on my teenage years, I wished I had known more people who were in my situation and would have been able to talk to more people who have been through it. I knew when I got here that I wanted to help out in some regard with kids who had lost their parents."
And so he started meeting with the kids. It isn't easy. Hamonic is a private person who says he is not entirely comfortable opening up about his feelings. He admits to being a bit overwhelmed by the attention he and his family received earlier in the year when ESPN's "E-60" ran a feature on him. Still, from the moment he conceived of the program, he has insisted that there would be no nights off. He wanted to reach as many kids as possible.
"Here's a 24-year-old guy who just won an NHL game and should be out celebrating," says Huntington Station's Gina Dowling, whose children, Joseph and Gabriella, met with Hamonic last season and have continued a relationship through email. "We've been through all kinds of therapy and grief camps. But I would trade it all for that one hour with Travis. He really understands what the kids are going through. He's been where my kids are."
In November, Erin Harrison and her 7-year-old son, Jason Adams, of Miller Place, were Hamonic's guest of the game. Harrison said it was an incredible experience for her son to meet a professional athlete with whom he could identify.
"He kept saying, Travis Hamonic lost his father just like I did. He was 10 and I was 5,'' Harrison said of her son. "I think it just helps him.''
Hamonic insists that the kids are not the only ones being helped.
"Every kid I meet, I am able to get something off my chest in a different way,'' he said. "They think I'm helping them, but they're helping me. It's really true . . . I know I have an opportunity to try to do good in the world. For me, that means more to me than scoring a couple of goals. I can have a bad game but then I can think I made an impact with some of the kids and I can go home that night thinking I had a good day.''