by Brian Coe || AHL On The Beat Archive
Penguins defenseman Matt Carkner is one of the most imposing figures in the American Hockey League.
His 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame is enough to make opponents think twice about venturing into the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton zone and, if they do decide to take him on, chances are they’re going to end up on their wallets. And if they really want to get feisty, Carkner has no problem dropping the gloves to take care of business.
But behind the tough exterior lies one of the biggest hearts you will ever find. That was evident on Monday afternoon, when Carkner was found not plying his trade on the ice, but applying tape to wrapping paper in the Penguins’ locker room.
For the fourth consecutive season, Carkner has put together a program with his teammates to bring a little holiday happiness to some less fortunate children.
"Basically it’s just something the team has stepped up to do, I kind of organize it a little bit," said Carkner, who got the idea from a similar program run by former Cleveland Barons trainer Steve Wissman. "I’ve been put in a position where I have the resources [to help]. We’re able to play a sport for a living and we’re able to give back a little bit."
The idea behind the program, dubbed Carks’ Kids, is simple. Carkner contacted the local United Way when he was assigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton in late September, asking them to provide him with a group of kids who otherwise might not have the best holiday. Those children (with help from their parents) were asked to provide three "needs" and three "wants" — needs could include anything from warm winter clothing to clean bedding, while wants could be toys, CD’s or DVD’s.
Penguins players and staff members were then asked to adopt one of those children, providing all of the needs listed and as many wants as they could. None of the Pens batted an eye when Carkner approached the team about helping out.
"This is my fourth year doing it, and it’s been awesome," he said. "Every year, the guys, there are no questions asked. As soon as I said, ‘We have to step up and help out a little bit,’ everyone goes above and beyond what I expect, and it’s been a great event every year."
While this is the fourth season that Carkner has been involved with the program, it’s the first time many of his Wilkes-Barre/Scranton teammates have participated in such an event. But it’s something they have all been enjoying.
"I’ve never been able to do anything like this, to help anybody less fortunate," said right wing Jonathan Filewich, taking a break from the pile of boxes and bows set in front of him. "Christmas is all about giving. I’ve never been that big into receiving gifts.
"But hopefully [these gifts] will light up my little boy’s face, and that will be great to see."
Connor James agreed with those sentiments. "It’s nice to be able to participate, and I think the guys get a kick out of buying the gifts," he said. "I was with Kyle [Brodziak] and we went to buy Barbies and Barbie doll houses, stuff like that. It wasn’t really what we’re used to, but it was still fun.
"A lot of us don’t get to go home, so anything you can do to kind of get in the Christmas spirit is nice. It’s just a great thing [Carkner] puts on. I think everyone gets a real kick out of doing it."
James was among the gathering of players and significant others who gathered on Dec. 11 to get the gifts ready for delivery. But his wrapping may have left a little to be desired. "I think we’re all pretty bad to tell you the truth," he laughed. "It’s good we have some wives and girlfriends here, because I don’t think the kids would be too impressed with how the presents look. Hopefully they’ll be happy with what’s inside."
Carkner, his wife Kary, and several members of the team were set to deliver the packages to the Kirby Family House, a shelter for homeless families trying to get back on their feet, on Dec. 13. Who would enjoy the day more – the players giving the gifts or the kids receiving them – was still to be seen.
"That’s awesome, that’s a great day," said a beaming Carkner. "Some kids are just flabbergasted, they don’t really know what to expect. They open the gifts and kind of look at them and don’t understand. But it’s a great feeling to see them. They’ll open up one of the remote controlled cars or DVD’s or something, and they’re just excited.
"It’s great to be able to give back to them."