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Hockey's humanitarians

March 14, 2013
Photo: Norfolk Admirals

By Mitchell Sulkess || AHL On The Beat Archive

For professional hockey players, the level of success they have reached is often due to the environments they grew up in and communities they play for. To be a professional hockey player, it requires a specific set of physical skills on the ice, but commonly overlooked is the work being done off the ice by some of sports’ biggest humanitarians.

The new Norfolk Admirals, who moved to Virginia after an affiliation change last summer, have not hesitated in embracing the Hampton Roads community this season. The community, which contains the largest naval base on the East Coast, is largely made up of military personnel and their families.

The Admirals have spent time with our country’s servicemen and women, which included trips aboard the U.S.S. George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier and also Landing Craft Air Cushion (LCAC) hovercrafts earlier in the season. Players have also visited local area military hospitals to provide support and lift the spirits of our nation’s wounded warriors.

While most of the players have made trips to the many Hampton Roads military facilities, some have also dedicated themselves to serving the community on an individual basis by supporting local organizations and charities.

One of the new Admirals players on the forefront of community outreach this season is forward John Mitchell. The native of Neenah, Wis., has taken a liking to an organization founded in Hampton Roads called “Operation Smile.”

Operation Smile was founded in 1982 with the goal of helping children who suffer from facial deformities receive treatment and eventual surgery. According to the organization’s website, Operation Smile has performed over 200,000 free surgeries to alleviate conditions like cleft lip around the world in the 30 years since the organization’s conception.

“With our occupation, we live a relatively wealthy lifestyle, so it's always good to remember that everyone around the world isn’t as fortunate,” said Mitchell.

In addition to making a donation for every win the Admirals earn this season, Mitchell has helped Operation Smile gain attention by speaking publicly and raising awareness for the organization through social media sites.

Another Admiral using his influence to better the Hampton Roads community is team captain Nate Guenin. The veteran defenseman has shown that being a humanitarian does not always apply to helping other humans – it can also apply to our four-legged friends.

Guenin agreed to be the face of Norfolk’s annual “Pucks and Paws Night,” where fans were encouraged to bring their dogs to the Dec. 15 game against the Bridgeport Sound Tigers. A portion of ticket sales went to local SPCA animal shelters and veterinary clinics. During the game, t-shirts depicting Guenin and his pit bull mix, Diezel, were sold on the concourse to raise money for the SPCA.

“We have a five-year-old pit bull mix. You hear a lot of negative things about the breed, so I jumped at the opportunity to take a picture with our dog and portray them in a positive light,” said Guenin.

The SPCA, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, prides itself in feeding, sheltering and adopting-out stray cats and dogs, while also providing desperately needed medical attention.

Admirals forward John Kurtz has also set the example for other players around the league to follow when it comes donating both time and money for the betterment of the community.

Although Kurtz has worked with several organizations this season, including Susan G. Komen for the Cure, skating with children of the Autism Society, and reading to children with special needs at local schools, he has also found the time to spearhead a fundraising campaign on behalf of the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Society.

Kurtz's father was diagnosed with MS when John was growing up. The disease, which attacks the central nervous system and causes a number of painful symptoms felt throughout the body, is currently incurable.

Kurtz donates money to the local chapter of the MS Society for every Norfolk win. The native of Oakville, Ont., was also the face of MS Awareness Night on Mar. 1, which generated over $1,000 in fundraising for those affected by the disease.

As of Mar. 7, Kurtz, through the help of current and former teammates, fans and social media, has helped to raise over $7,000 for the local MS Society of Hampton Roads. He hopes the funds will be used to support families like his who have been affected by the debilitating disease.

“It feels really good because you know what they’re going through, and what kind of challenges they face on a day to day basis,” Kurtz said. “Being able to lend a hand in any way, it's really rewarding.

“It shows that we’re doing stuff other than just putting our skates on and playing hockey. We’re here to pass on a positive message and help out any way we can.”

Kurtz also has a message for future players who want to give back to their communities.

“Just do as much as you can," said Kurtz.

"You have the tools and you have the voice out in the community. You might as well take advantage of it.”