Brothers donate hockey pins to Arizona boy

Joey Payeur

For some, the challenges of life include getting the driveway shovelled after a two-day snowstorm or trying to negotiate rush-hour traffic.
Anyone wanting some perspective on what real challenges are should talk with Natasha Ellwanger.
“It’s just what our life is right now,” said the Tucson, Ariz. resident and wife of a U.S. Air Force veteran, who currently is in the third month of a 10-month deployment to Afghanistan that has taken him away from his family for the second time in two years.
But Ellwanger received one of the greatest gifts a mother can get this week—the chance to watch one of her children experience a much-needed infusion of joy into their life at a most difficult time.
And it was all thanks mainly to the kindness of two Fort Frances youths who wanted to do something special for a fellow young hockey player dealing with the absence of his father.
Declan Webb, who plays for the Fort Frances Atom ‘AA’ Canadians, and his younger brother, Griffin, sent a collection of pins—gathered mostly at the Squirt International Tournament earlier this year in Fargo, N.D.—to Ellwanger’s second-youngest son, Zachary.
The reason they did so is something Ellwanger will never forget.
“These are people who aren’t getting anything from doing this other than blessing a military family,” she remarked.
“It’s so touching to see there are still people who aren’t wrapped up in themselves and who think of others first.”
Last year, Ellwanger’s oldest son, Jonny, was unable to attend a Fargo tournament because her husband, Lee, was called away to immediate duty in Afghanistan four days before the tournament was scheduled to begin.
Instead, the family wanted to be together for whatever time they could before his deployment.
Lee was gone for 10 months last year, returning for November and December, before getting the call to head back to Afghanistan in January.
That didn’t preclude Zachary from going to Fargo this year, where pin-trading between teams takes place on a scale possibly surpassed only by the dealing that occurs during the Olympic Games.
But, being born a premature twin and being below average size for his age, the naturally-shy Zachary wasn’t comfortable approaching other players on his own.
As a result, he came away from the tournament with only the four pins he received from the quartet of teams his own squad played, plus a couple of more he actually spent his own money on.
Upon returning home from the tournament, Ellwanger knew she had to do something to cheer Zachary up.
“I started sending e-mails to teams from all over who were at the tournament, including ones from Canada, seeing if there was something they could do to help,” recalled Ellwanger.
“I thought, ‘Why would anyone from Canada care about our military?’ But I figured it was worth a try.”
One of those e-mails ended up in the in-box of Fort Frances Minor Hockey Association secretary Kelly Woods, who forwarded it to Rebecca Webb, Declan and Griffin’s mother.
“What really connected with me in the letter was reading how when Zachary was on Skype with his dad in Afghanistan, and told him if he had only been there to help him trade, he would have got more pins,” Rebecca Webb recalled.
“I read the e-mail to my sons and they knew immediately what they wanted to do.”
Declan and Griffin decided it was only right that they share their collection with another young person not as fortunate, as they to have a father to come home to on a regular basis.
“I thought the pins I had were pretty cool, and that if [Zachary] didn’t have any, he would be pretty sad,” explained Declan, 11.
“It’s tough for him to deal with his dad going away like that.”
Griffin, six, echoed his big brother’s thoughts.
“Because he [Zachary] has no pins, I would like him to have them because I like having them,” said Griffin.
Billie Dittaro, mother of Declan’s Canadians’ teammate Jace Dittaro, came through with some extra pins to add to the care package being sent south that will allow Zachary to share pins with not only Jonny, but every member of Zachary’s team.
When Ellwanger got word from Rebecca Webb of what was transpiring, it was a
life-changing moment for the mother of four who works an average of 50 hours per week.
She also runs Zachary and Jonny to hockey practice two hours away in Phoenix several times per week while herself getting by on about four hours of sleep per night.
“It brought tears to my eyes the way these people have opened up their hearts,” an emotional Ellwanger said.
“Hockey is a major outlet for the boys to help with the fact that their dad is gone so much. . . .
“When it comes to Jonny, his dream isn’t to play in the NHL,” she added. “It’s just to come up to Canada and skate on Canadian ice one day.”
Ellwanger hoped the sentiment of the Webb brothers’ gesture is something that resonates with those who hear about it.
“I hope people everywhere who read this will make an effort to pay it forward and help someone out who needs it, even if it someone who’s a total stranger,” she remarked.