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NHL players raise more than $1 million to help rebuild hospital in Haiti

NHL player Georges Laraque jokes around with a Haitian boy outside Grace Children's Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, June 8, 2010. The NHL Players' Association donating more than $1 million to help rebuild a hospital in Haiti. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-NHLPA

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NHL player Georges Laraque jokes around with a Haitian boy outside Grace Children's Hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Tuesday, June 8, 2010. The NHL Players' Association donating more than $1 million to help rebuild a hospital in Haiti. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-NHLPA

Dan Hamhuis was aware of the devastation in Haiti long before he got on a plane bound for the country. But that didn't keep the Nashville Predators defenceman from having his eyes opened once he arrived.

"I've seen a lot of the video and pictures before coming here—we've all seen it on the TV," Hamhuis said from the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. "I don't think it really hits home or sinks in until you see it in person. It's kind of what it was for me. Where we grow up and where we live, it seems distant from us.

"But when you're here, it's real."

Hamhuis joined Haitian-Canadian NHLer Georges Laraque and staff members of the NHL Players' Association and World Vision Canada to announce Wednesday that the union's "Hockey for Haiti" initiative had raised more than $1 million.

The money will help rebuild Grace Children's Hospital, which was badly damaged in the massive Jan. 12 earthquake that killed more than 230,000 people. Hamhuis and Laraque were given a tour of the hospital's temporary facility on Monday and saw just how badly the donation was needed.

"Even the existing buildings that are still standing, in North American standards they'd certainly probably be condemned," said Hamhuis. "It really is just some tents and tarps strung up to trees. There's babies getting weighed and measured and getting their shots done just kind of in the parking lot under these tents."

Laraque is one of the driving forces behind the donation. Born in Montreal to Haitian immigrants, he's long felt a tie to the country and wanted to find a way for NHLers to pitch in.

The resulting initiative received money from a variety of sources—donations of $100,000 each from the NHL and NHLPA, an auction of 140 game-worn Olympic jerseys and through private contributions.

"I feel that it's my duty to do something for people here," said Laraque. "I'm glad to see how everybody responded."

He's visiting Haiti for the first time in roughly two decades. The 33-year-old tough guy, who spent part of last season with the Montreal Canadiens, made two previous trips to the country as a child.

Laraque didn't notice as many changes as you'd think.

"It's been actually quite impressive," he said. "When I got here, you'd never be able to tell that this country just went through a big tragedy because people have found ways to live. They've showed a lot of courage. Wherever we go, people are smiling at you, they're so nice."

Hamhuis had a similar observation: "What really stuck on me is that people aren't sitting on the side of the road feeling sorry for themselves. They still seem to have a lot of spirit. It really shows you what is important and that is people—not the things you have."

The NHLPA's donation should leave a lasting impact on the country.

Some of the money will be used to construct a better temporary hospital facility that can withstand the upcoming rainy season. A more permanent structure—which Laraque says will be better than the original—is expected to be completed within two years.

Laraque believes that Canadians could learn a lot from the spirit of Haitians.

"Haiti is a proud nation," he said. "It's one of the poorest countries in the world and they find a way to live. ... They're going to grow back stronger than before (from) this tragedy. It's funny people that live in Canada (complain) about stuff—come here, come and see what's going on down here.

"You have nothing to complain about when you live in Canada."

Hamhuis can attest to the that.

He volunteered to take time out of his summer and join Laraque on the trip. At the end of the week, he'll head back to his off-season home in Smithers, B.C., with a renewed perspective.

"It's no holiday here, that's for sure," said Hamhuis. "But it certainly opens your eyes to some of the troubles that go on in the world and makes you appreciate everything you have at home."

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