Friday night, when the Columbus Blue Jackets faced off against the Edmonton Oilers, the officiating crew called seven penalties against the home team, but there were five fans in attendance that weren’t going to dispute a single call.
The fans in question are the Zink family from Johnstown, Ohio. They were there not only to cheer on the Blue Jackets, but also so their 10 year-old son, A.J., could participate in the “Zebras Care” program put on by the NHL Official’s Organization (NHLOA).
“It’s a program designed to take care of children facing illness or disease and try and bring some happiness to their day,” said Referee Steve Kozari of the program that’s been helping children for over four years.
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For A.J., an opportunity to be closer to hockey was certainly a lift. The son of Alisa and Andy Zink, a former hockey player at Bowling Green, A.J. plays wing for an EYHA squirt team and has attended Blue Jackets games with his family.
“I attended the inaugural Blue Jackets game,” said Andy. “It’s become a family tradition to attend games together.”
But it wasn’t just a love of hockey that brought A.J. to the arena, it was a battle against Guillain-Barre syndrome – a rare autoimmune disease that causes paralysis and can lead to severe complications involving the lungs and heart.
“It started with a headache and flu-like symptoms,” said A.J.’s mom, Alisa. “As things became more complicated, we sought help. The team at Nationwide Children’s Hospital made the diagnosis and he was admitted on September 28.”
For A.J., the following weeks were a blur. He spent two weeks in the Intensive Care Unit, followed by time on the neurology floor. He ultimately was transferred to the rehab floor for his treatment.
“The Jackets organization comes to visit Nationwide Children’s a lot,” said Alisa. “One of the nurses must have told them that a hockey player was on the floor and some of the Jackets players came to spend time with A.J.”
For A.J., whose favorite Blue Jacket is Cam Atkinson, time focusing on something other than his recovery was welcome.
“We talked about how I got sick, and how I play hockey,” said A.J. “It made me feel better.”
After A.J. was released from the hospital, the Blue Jackets Foundation reached out to him about being a participant in the Zebra Cares event.
“When my mom told me, I was super happy,” A.J. said.
A.J., his mom, dad and two sisters spent time prior to Friday’s game visiting with the officiating team in their locker room and asked a variety of questions from how the officials train, to their hockey background and what it’s like to be an official. A.J. received an official’s jersey as well as a goodie bag from the Blue Jackets.
“It’s giving back,” Kozari said. “Meeting A.J., knowing he plays hockey, and seeing he’s on his way to a full recovery, it reminds us all – players, coaches, officials – that we are so lucky.”
The experience made the Zink family instant fans of the officiating team. They even agreed not to boo the men in black and white stripes.
“It really buoys everyone’s spirits,” said Kozari. “We know we aren’t always well-liked on the ice (as officials), hopefully we just made a friend and in return he helped us realize that life is pretty good.”
After spending time with the officials, the Zink family headed off to their seats to enjoy the hockey game. The night capped off what was a big week for A.J.
“We got back skating on the ice for the first time this week,” Andy said. “With the Jackets visit to the hospital and now this experience, it just shows how amazing the hockey community is.”
Another first this past week – A.J. insisted his family make a visit to a local toy store to buy toys for the children who still remain at Children’s Hospital on the rehab floor where he spent his time.
Alisa sees the connection behind her son’s commitment to making life better for others and the Blue Jackets commitment to the same ideal.
“We’ve always loved the Blue Jackets for being community focused and family centered,” Alisa said. “Now we see what they do for families and children to encourage them in their tough times.”
“We get to meet a lot of great people through Zebra Cares – it’s a great way to make a difference while letting fans see the other side of the game.”
While the officials couldn’t cast a vote, the Zink family overwhelmingly chose the Jackets to win Friday. The team came through one more time for A.J. – notching the 4-2 win.
The Jackets next home game is Tuesday, Dec. 3 against the Tampa Bay Lightning at 7 p.m. For more information or to buy tickets, visit bluejackets.nhl.com.