Gulls supporting community at holiday time

by Steve Brown | AHL On The Beat

While the San Diego Gulls have turned their play around on the ice, the players are changing lives off it.

In support of the local community during the holiday season, the Gulls’ entire 25-man roster of players is championing the organization’s mission by participating in two events over a week-long span to help various causes and charities close to the organization and San Diego.

For the fifth straight season the Gulls took part in the local children’s hospital outdoor ice rink on Dec. 3. One week later, the team spent a few hours holiday shopping with kids from the Boys and Girls Club at Shop With a Jock, an event hosted by the foundation of former San Diego Charger and NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau.

The Gulls take pride in serving the San Diego and Southern California community through a variety of charitable fundraisers, educational programs and outreach activities, and strive to be actively involved in the local community, with a dedicated involvement from players, coaches and the staff.

The San Diego Gulls Foundation serves as the team’s main charitable beneficiary with its mission to facilitate and support programs that produce positive change for children and families throughout San Diego. That support comes from a variety of initiatives, but most importantly its broadening access to the sport of hockey, addressing the health and wellness needs of the San Diego community, and supporting the very community that supports the hockey club.

To date, the Gulls have donated nearly $400,000 to various charities and programs in San Diego since the team arrived in the fall of 2015 four years ago.

Gulls Night at Rady Children’s Ice Rink at Liberty Station saw the entire team skate outdoors under the stars with VIP (very important patients) families with a rink surrounded by palm trees and the Southern California air.

“It’s awesome, we’ve been doing this for a number of years now and each year it seems to get bigger and bigger with the turnouts,” said Gulls forward and Southern California native Chase De Leo. “Any time we can be involved in the community, especially such a great place like Rady Children’s Hospital. They do so much for the children, anything we can do to give back is something special.

“I think it’s cool to engage with the fans here. They see us (at games) with our helmets and jerseys every night, but it’s a nice opportunity to spend time with them in a casual setting specifically for them.”

Rady Children’s Hospital VIP’s are families with a child who spent time in and out of the hospital for various ailments and treatments. The outdoor rink welcomes more than 40,000 skaters each year to enjoy a winter wonderland just miles from the Pacific Ocean. Net proceeds from the rink benefit the Thriving After Cancer program in the Peckham Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Rady Children’s Hospital, with the holiday rink supported by the San Diego Gulls Foundation.

Currently, 75 percent of children treated for cancer will become long-term survivors. Thriving After Cancer and its program coordinator work with children with cancer and their families to help link them to services and provide education about healthy lifestyle choices, ensuring the best possible outcome for each child.

“There’s a lot of smiling kids who haven’t had the easiest time,” said forward Luke Gazdic. “Anything we can do here to put a smile on a child or family’s face is what we’re here to do.”

Dec. 10 saw the team out again in full force with the entire player roster participating in the 25th annual Shop with a Jock Presented by the Junior Seau Foundation at Target in Mission Valley.

The Junior Seau Foundation partners with Target, corporate sponsors and individual donors to take underprivileged children in need from the Boys and Girls Club of San Diego shopping to find holiday gifts for their families. Each of the 200 children are given a $100 gift certificate from the Junior Seau Foundation to shop for gifts for their loved ones, with each child paired with a Gulls player to while they shop.

“This event is fun for the players because they get to shop with the kids, pick out gifts that these kids may not otherwise get to pick out,” said Gulls director of community relations Melissa Werman. “It’s really about the moment, not only for our players to be supporting the community, but for the kids to have this experience with them as professional athletes as someone they look up to.”

Shop with a Jock was attended by professional and collegiate athletes from all of San Diego’s teams, including the Gulls; San Diego Padres; former San Diego Chargers; San Diego Seals; San Diego Legion; San Diego Sockers; San Diego State University; University of San Diego; University of California, San Diego; Challenged Athletes Foundation and Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center.

“It’s something our players really enjoy, especially after the fact” added Werman. “But also it’s one of the few events that gets all of the San Diego sports team together for one collective cause. You have athletes here, all together, which I think is extremely special.”

Junior Seau established his foundation in 1992 to raise money and resources for programs that inspire young people to face life’s challenges with enthusiasm, hope and dignity.

“It’s great to come out into the community and give back,” said goaltender Anthony Stolarz on joining the foundation’s cause for a night. “Walking around the store, seeing the kids faces light up when they put gifts in their bags and when they were passing friends and showing each other what they got for their families. It was great to see.”

Stolarz was paired with a 10-year-old named Martin, who picked up two gifts for his sister and a few other gifts for his parents.

“It’s great to see he’s in a giving mood and I’m happy he was able to enjoy tonight and he got everything he wanted,” noted Stolarz.

What really struck a chord on the night was the charitable feeling Stolarz left on all in attendance. In addition to the $100 gift card, he created a bond and connection with Martin that saw him leave with a special new holiday gift.

“We were talking early on and hit it off early on because we both like video games and both play Fortnite so we bonded over that,” an emphatic Stolarz said. “He was talking about how he didn’t have a Nintendo Switch, so I thought it would be a great gesture to surprise him with that. He was a little hesitant at first and opened up to the idea. He was so excited to show his friends and it was great to see.”

In the holiday spirit, the gifts, and time spent, go a long way for the children and families in need throughout the community, and the entire Gulls team plays a part in empowering those lives and providing an outlet of support and kindness.

“It’s about giving their time,” concluded Werman. “They’re spending their time and spending their evening, an off nights, with these kids.”