HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WHNT) – If you’re a hockey fan, you’ve heard of the “Miracle on Ice.” But recently, some professional hockey players here in Huntsville left the ice long enough to visit a place where miracles happen all the time.
Walking to an elevator with some of his Huntsville Havoc teammates, Sam Cannata told one of them, “It takes your breath away for sure the first time you see it.” Several of the players are about to see what the team captain already knows. Cannata remarked, “You get to see the miracle of what this facility does and the fact that all these babies have survived is really special.”
Their tour guide is Chris George, one of the most popular players to hit the ice in Huntsville. Chris retired from the game but he still wears a jersey on Melissa George night to raise money for his daughters fund. Chris’ twin daughters Ann Catherine and Melissa came into the world at 26 weeks. They weighed one pound 15 ounces and one pound 11 ounces.
A.C. survived. Melissa didn’t. Chris and his wife Amy established the Melissa George Neonatal Memorial Fund to raise money to buy lifesaving equipment for the Regional Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Huntsville Hospital for Women and Children. For eight years now, Havoc players have worn special jerseys and played a game for Melissa and other babies.
As the players walk down the hall toward the doors leading into the unit, Chris tells them, “You’ll see the jerseys on the sides from the previous years.” The same hallway is also lined with photographs of some of the babies who have benefitted from the equipment. This is the first year Havoc players have toured the NICU.
Sam Cannata points at one of the pictures and reads the caption below, “One pound nine ounces.” Some of the babies are no bigger than a soft drink can. Chris looks at the guys and tells them, “When Ann Catherine and Melissa were born my wedding ring slid all the way up their arm and dangled off their shoulder.”
Cannata is the only player who’d been to the unit before. He remembers that first visit saying, “It was really moving actually seeing them for the first time.” Several weeks ago after talking to Chris, Sam wanted to do more. So he came to the unit for several hours to visit with families just to take their minds off things if only for a few minutes. “I hope that I can just provide a little bit of relief, “ he continued, “and maybe talk hockey with them, sports or anything they want. “
Yeah, these same guys who love nothing more than dropping the gloves or putting an opposing player into the boards do have a softer side. “Being able to do this and take time away and find that balance is really what makes me who I am,” said Cannata.
He was also there when a baby didn’t survive. It was tougher than any hit he’s ever taken on the ice. “We talk about fighting in hockey and how hard that is but it really doesn’t hold a candle to what these children, these parents, grandparents, family members, what they all go through on a daily basis in this unit.” Cannata continued, “So really, it inspired me and put things in perspective.”
On game night, the entire team found inspiration when Chris gave the guys his pre-game speech in the locker room. Choking back his emotions, Chris said, “It’s about premature infants, newborns in that hospital across the street that are fighting for their lives.” And for the first time, Ann Catherine joined her dad in the locker room to show them what they were playing for that night.
After Ann Catherine and her little sister Lily Baker each dropped a ceremonial puck, the Havoc shut out the Bloomington Thunder 4 to 0. But the biggest win of the night was raising another 45 thousand dollars for Melissa’s fund so babies will have a fighting chance at life. In the eight years the Huntsville Havoc organization has hosted Melissa George night, they’ve raised 343 thousand dollars for the NICU.