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April 23, 2013 | 2:45pm ET

Helping Hands
 Defending the Blue Line helps kids of servicemen stay connected to the greatest sport on Earth

LOS ANGELES, CA -- It's never the wrong time to do the right thing.

Fans who bemoaned the lack of hockey during the lockout haven't been heard from in months. It's a maddening pace in which NHL teams have executed the compacted 48 game schedule.

Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk remarked last month that his team was in the midst of a 15 games in 28 days stretch, while another GM lamented that the roster should have been expanded to 30 players because the scheduling is more like baseball than hockey. It's a legit claim because we've seen three games series between teams and back-to-back nights in the same venue with the same teams.

During a Kings home stand in March, I covered four games in six nights, an unprecedented occurrence in my decade-plus at Staples Center.

So with game content on overload as we head into the playoffs, it's time to take a break from faceoff percentages and powerplay efficiency to relate a story that serves the greater good and in which you can lend a hand to a very worthy cause.

During the course of watching NHL games, you've seen commercials for the charity, Defending the Blue Line, a non-profit with the mission of ensuring that children of military members are afforded every opportunity to participate in the game of hockey.

DTBL accomplished this by providing free hockey equipment (courtesy of the NHLPA's Goals and Dreams Foundation, and Graf Canada), access to some of the finest summer hockey camps at no cost, and grants to help with local association fees. In addition, the non-profit goes the extra step by providing unique experiences for military families including attending a NHL game.

The concept of Defending the Blue Line was created by Minnesotan Shane Hudella in 2009. He's still serving in active duty for the Minnesota Army National Guard after two decades and was deployed for Operation Desert Storm in 1990. Now in its fourth year of existence, one would think that it took a long time to conceptualize and birth the idea.

"As crazy as it sounds, I woke up one morning with the concept of Defending the Blue Line," he said. "I reached out to some of my contacts in the Army and at the Minnesota Wild and their lone response was 'how can we help?' That gave me the impetus to go home and start formalizing the mission."

Hudella cites three players that immediately jumped into the fray to kick start his efforts, then-Wild now-Shark Brent Burns was front and center from Day One, while Florida Panthers forward George Parros and the departed Derek Boogaard help to form the foundation of NHL players support, "they had the star power and mojo to get this rolling from day one and we haven't looked back since."

Burns has been the primary face of the player efforts and he hosted military families in a suite at the Shark Tank on April 1 during San Jose's Military Appreciation Night.

The list of NHL supporters continues to grow, at least count 17 active players (including David Backes and Ryan Kesler) and 15 NHL teams have thrown their support behind DTBL.

"We've shipped hockey equipment to families of servicemen in 42 U.S. states and we've been able to outfit 500 kids from head to toe in addition to have them attend hockey camps. During the lockout the running joke was that the only thing the players and owners could agree upon was to help Defending the Blue Line," Shane kiddingly related.

As acceptance of the concept grew, Shane cites a defining moment the progression.

"One day I said to myself, this is a great idea but there's a lot of work to it," he recanted, laughingly. "I was playing goalie in a men's league on a Friday afternoon and had just left the ice. My cell phone rang and I normally don't answer it but for some reason I did. It was Brian Williams from NBC News calling to do a story on us and the night it ran we got $10,000 in online donations and a barrage of contacts from hockey programs all over the country asking how they could help. It was the affirmation we needed to show us that we had a great concept."

As for the selection of a recipient for the charity's effort it varies on a case by case basis, "Having served for a long for a long time, I have a pretty deep network of military folks and I will reach out to one of our program managers when a worthy family comes across our path. Others have seen a commercial on TV and will go to our website and request assistance," Hudella explains.

Shane and his organization have helped kids stay connected to the game in the States and now has taken the initiative to expand their work into Canada as well as other professional sports. If you need a compelling reason to donate to this cause, its leader conveys a tale about the one child that stands out in his memory over the rest.

"All these kids are really special but the one who stands out in my mind is the son of a KIA (killed-in-action) who was the first one we helped when Brent Burns got to San Jose," he said. "When you see the reality of a seven year old boy who lost his dad in the war it hits home. Riley Richards and his dad used to watch hockey together and for us to be able to step in and put him in equipment and do a couple of other special things for that family, it tells me we do make a difference.

"With the KIA families, it's so important to keep the kids connected to hockey because it gives them a community to lean on in an incredibly difficult time. We'll never be able to replace his dad or express enough gratitude for his service but hopefully we can help him stay involved to the extent where his hockey coach could be a potential father figure, there's so many parallels between the military and hockey communities."

So after you dry your eyes after that story, here's how you can help.

"The biggest challenge any non-profit has these days to remain competitive is to get help financially and that’s the number one way a fan can assist while a local hockey association can contact us to arrange an equipment donation and that’s how we get gear on most of the kids," Shane explained.

The best way for you to be a hero to the next deserving kid is to visit the website and do what you can.

Dennis Bernstein is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.




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