It's no secret that the season has long been over for the Houston Aeros. And a March slump all but eliminated the team from the playoffs when just one short winning streak might have kept them in contention. But there have still been games to play, and after last night's 3-1 defeat to the Rockford IceHogs, the Aeros find themselves with just three games remaining in the month of April and for the season.
But as one who has spent a lot of time with the coaches and the team, I've learned that they're more than just athletes playing at a game. They're human beings, not just hockey players. They have lives away from the hockey rink, and for many of the guys, that non-hockey time involves going out into the city of Houston and mingling with fans. Some of these activities are for fun, and for building team awareness in the city. But most of it is spent on a better, more fulfilling cause, doing charity work.
The Aeros Humanitarian of the Year is Matt Kassian. Kassian's the team enforcer, something that he calls a job, and in his spare time, he's balancing his job with going to hospitals, animal shelters, and anyplace else the team may need him to go.
Kassian, like Mitch Love and John Scott (two of the team's previous enforcers over the past couple of seasons) is, off the rink, one of the nicest guys that you'll ever meet. He's got a good-natured joke for everybody, and he's one of those people who seems to recognize that being a professional athlete means that he gets to do more than just get paid to hit guys on the ice.
"I like anything with kids," he says. "That's great. They're probably the hardest things to do. For part of me, they're my least favorite, but part of me they're my most favorite, anything with the terminally sick kids in hospitals or anywhere. On the one hand, you're going in, and it's hard to imagine just ever being in that situation with any of my family members or someone close to me or even myself being in that situation.
"It's tough to see. Your heart breaks for some of those kids and some of those families with what they have to go through. It makes you feel incredibly blessed to be able to play professional hockey, and to be even to go. Just by even being there, even if they have no idea of who you are, no idea of who the Aeros are -- they might not even be from Houston sometimes, they're from other areas and they don't know who the Aeros are a lot of the time. Even then, they don't care that they don't know. It's just the fact that there's someone's telling them that they're a professional athlete and they're coming to say hi, and give them a shirt or sign a puck, or just say hi and talk for a few minutes.
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"Just to make those kids smile, it's a great feeling. It's almost more rewarding for you as a person to go. So I would say those are probably my favorite ones to go do. Also least favorite because it can be really tough to see some of those kids. And sometimes it's difficult to know what to say. You don't know what to say to those kids who are hooked up there with breathing tubes and they can't really talk, and they've been in there for months on end. And here I am worried about how hard practice is going to be the next day. It's kind of mind-blowing sometimes."
Houston Aeros head coach Kevin Constantine agrees that it's not something the players do just because they have to do it. And they don't just do it because it's the right thing to do.
"The guys genuinely want to give a little of that back to the community," Constantine says. "Brandon Rogers last year [the AHL Humanitarian of the Year] and Matt this year, they're very, very giving of their time in a way to try to give back to what the community does for us."
I tend toward a lot of cynicism in sports, and in life. But if you talk to guys like Kassian and Rogers, if you hang around with them, and if you actually get to know them, you learn that not all athletes are over-privileged punks like Tiger Woods and Ben Roethlisberger. They're just people like us who have been given gifts that we don't possess.