Athletes at their best – focused off the field

Opinion January 2, 2013 0 Comments

by Clark Groome

Now is the time of year when sportswriters traditionally look back on the year past, highlighting the best players and the best events they find in their rear view mirrors. Many publications choose a “Sportsman (or Sportswoman) of the Year.”

Sports Illustrated chose the Miami Heat’s LeBron James as its cover boy for Sportsman of the Year, the most coveted and respected of the year-end honors.

The AP picked swimmer Michael Phelps, winner of 22-Olympic-medals, as its male athlete of the year. Locally, the Daily News cited South Jersey’s Mike Trout, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s All Star outfielder and unanimous choice as the American League’s Rookie of the Year.

Other possibilities for year-end honors include Oscar “The Blade Runner” Pistorius, the double amputee who ran in the London Olympics, the first disabled athlete to do so; Penn State football’s head coach Bill O’Brien who, with his dedicated team, took the Nittany Lions’ troubled program to an 8-4 record, far better than anyone thought possible; Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz, at least until he was suspended after the season for taking the banned stimulant Adderall; and the Flyers’ Claude Giroux, one of the best players in the NHL (remember that?), who might have gotten more press if the idiots who run the league and its players association could get their acts together and unlock the doors so the teams can get back on the ice.

Clearly, the “Good Sport of the Year” kudos should go to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for her amazing entrance at the London Olympics’ opening ceremonies.

For all the accomplishments of those noted and honored, I was at a loss about what to write. Then on the Saturday before Christmas, needing a hockey fix, I watched the American Hockey League (AHL) Adirondack Phantoms (né the Philadelphia Phantoms and the Flyers principal farm team) play the Bridgeport (Conn.) Sound Tigers in Bridgeport, which is 20 miles from Newtown, the site of the horrible massacre of 26 people – 20 of whom were five- to seven-year-old children – at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

AHL teams, like their big brothers in the NHL, dress 20 players for each game. As a tribute to the kids, each player’s name was replaced on his sweater by the name of one of the young victims. Even on TV it was a tremendously moving event. It made a clear statement about what our priorities should be.

A few days prior to that, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz had written a tribute to his young fan Jack Pinto, who died in the massacre. Cruz was Jack’s favorite player. Cruz wrote, on the cleats and gloves he wore in the game against the Atlanta Falcons: “Jack Pinto ‘My Hero’” and “R.I.P. Jack Pinto.” Several days later he took those cleats and gloves to Newtown and gave them to young Jack’s parents. Jack had been buried in Cruz’ jersey.

All NBA and NFL games were preceded by moments of silence and other tributes to those slain in Connecticut.

Back in November, after Hurricane Sandy devastated the Jersey shore, a group of locked out NHL players staged Operation Hat Trick, a charity game at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. The game raised more than $500,000 to aid the hurricane’s victims.

The game featured some of the league’s top stars. Team Philly/New Jersey, captained by the Flyers’ Scott Hartnell, included Flyers Braydon Coburn, Wayne Simmonds, Jody Shelley, and Kimmo Timonen as well as Colorado’s Steve Downie, LA’s Simon Gagne, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos, Toronto’s James van Riemsdyk, and New Jersey Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur.

Team New York, captained by the Rangers’ Brad Richards, featured Buffalo’s Ville Leino, Pittsburgh’s James Neil, Anaheim’s Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, and Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who flew in from Sweden for the game.

Scott Hartnell, in addition to organizing the game in Atlantic City, challenged his former teammate, New Jersey native James van Riemsdyk, to see who could raise the most to help Sandy victims. Hartnell raised $22,000 to JVR’s $18,000. The prize: Hartnell made JVR, traded to Toronto in July, wear Flyers gear when he was doing his Christmas shopping.

When you look back at 2012, don’t focus on the Phillies phlop, the disastrous Eagles season, the anger, hurt and sadness at Penn State, or the idiocy of the NHL lockout.

Think instead about the Sound Tigers, Victor Cruz, Hartnell and Richards’ teams in Atlantic City, JVR in Flyers gear at the mall, and the countless other athletes in many sports who publicly or privately contributed to those in need or helped those suffering after a terrible tragedy.

That’s the image I have of 2012 and it makes all of the other stuff seem terribly insignificant.

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