Fundraising efforts earn Orillia Major Atoms a spot on Heroes of Hockey Day, News, Minor Peewee A - Jim Wilson Chevrolet, 2017-2018, REP (Orillia Minor Hockey Association)

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Fundraising efforts earn Orillia Major Atoms a spot on Heroes of Hockey Day
Submitted By Michelle Robitaille on Friday, October 6, 2017
Terriers get their close-up...

For many kids in Canada, hockey is their salvation. The soundtrack of their childhood revolves around road trips and frigid rinks, out-of-town tournaments and sharp skates; wins and losses are overshadowed by broad smiles and fond memories.

But for some kids, playing hockey is not in the cards. That is the case for Grayson Gillespie, who, moments after taking his first breath Nov. 9, 2008, at Orillia Soldiers’ Memorial Hospital, was flown to Toronto’s SickKids Hospital, where he was diagnosed with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare and complicated heart defect that caused the left side of his heart to be dramatically underdeveloped. He required life-saving surgery.

Nine months later, he needed a second open-heart surgery. But by the time he was almost two, his little heart failed and he suffered multiple strokes and seizures. Doctors told the shell-shocked family the only remedy was a heart transplant. Grayson received his new heart in June 2011 and, today, he is healthy.

When Dallyn Telford heard about Grayson’s harrowing journey, the tale of the young boy who loved hockey hit home. The long-time minor hockey coach had recently challenged the players with his Burton Team of Investment Planning Counsel major atom Terriers to participate in a unique summer project aimed at developing the youths’ work ethic while encouraging them to think beyond themselves.

The players were challenged to work — for $5 an hour — doing chores and jobs for family and friends. Each player on the team was asked to work 40 hours to raise $200 during the summer. It was up to the coaches to find a worthy cause to which to donate those funds. They chose Grayson.

“The idea was to raise enough money that he could go, with his family, to the Air Canada Centre to watch a Toronto Maple Leafs game,” said team manager Michelle Robitaille. “We wanted to provide a limo for the trip, a hotel — the whole deal. And that’s what the kids did.”

For Grayson, it was a night he will never forget. But that memorable night was just another chapter in an incredible story. After an account of the team’s selfless act was published in the Packet & Times, it was picked up by The Hockey News. Producers behind a popular Scotiabank hockey-centric television program then “stumbled on” the story.

“We got a phone call from a producer asking about Grayson and about what the team did for him,” explained Robitaille. “They were researching, looking all across Canada for teams that had done something meaningful in their community related to hockey.”

In the end, after producers interviewed Grayson and his family in addition to every player on the team, along with their parents and coaches, the story about the Terriers was pitched to those behind the Scotiabank's Heroes of Hockey Day as part of the hockey sponsor’s The 5th Season promotion.

“They pick two teams from, literally, across Canada, and our team and a team of girls from Vancouver were selected,” said Robitaille. “The kids were just blown away when they found out. It’s been quite an experience.”

The Heroes of Hockey Day is a reality series of sorts that is aired during the second-period intermissions of Wednesday Night Hockey games on Sportsnet. The debut episode aired this past Wednesday. The series involves the two teams participating in several hockey-related challenges that test the players’ ability to work together.

“A film crew came here for a day of filming and then we all travelled to Toronto for a weekend in August and they filmed non-stop for two days,” said Robitaille. “It was pretty exhausting for 10-year-olds.”

It was also memorable as the young players met and were on the ice with NHL legends Lanny McDonald and Darcy Tucker, current star P.K. Subban, women’s hockey star Cassie Campbell and long-time television host Ron MacLean.

While it was a surreal experience, one moment stands out for Robitaille. During one of the challenges, five players must squeeze into an oversized jersey and run around the arena, searching for hidden pucks.

“I was sitting with Grayson and his parents in the viewing area and, as the boys were running by, one of them saw Grayson and started waving at him with a big smile on his face,” said Robitaille. “They couldn’t stop because it’s a race …. But seeing them so excited to see Grayson, it makes me emotional. Grayson is definitely an honourary member of the team.”

Grayson and his family will join team members and their families Saturday in Toronto, where they will be guests at the Leafs’ morning skate. They will have a behind-the-scenes tour of the Air Canada Centre, visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and then watch the Leafs host the New York Rangers in their home opener.

It might not be their last trip together. The winner of the competition, which won’t be unveiled until the Jan. 17 episode, receives an all-expenses-paid trip to Scotiabank’s Hockey Day in Canada festivities to be held Jan. 20 in Corner Brook, N.L.

“Dallyn just had this concept that you don’t need to be a superstar or make millions to do something meaningful for someone else, and these boys really embraced that,” said Robitaille. “They’re discovering what he predicted, that the rewards are tenfold. We just feel so fortunate and honoured to be part of this Scotiabank series. It’s been life altering. They will never forget it.”

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