The Toronto Maple Leafs all filed past, one by one, to hand the small teen an autographed picture.
Several stopped to chat, with Colton Orr lingering perhaps the longest, as the 6-foot-3, 220-pound enforcer kneeled down to the small red armchair in the lounge area at SickKids hospital to greet what seemed to be an old friend.
Leafs teammates Tyler Bozak and Clarke MacArthur then got the full rundown of all of the photos Zane Braun had collected that afternoon, with a short explanation for each.
“I got Joffrey Lupul, Phil Kessel, two snipers,” the tiny voice said. “Colton Orr, a tough guy. Nazem Kadri, a playmaker. Matt Frattin, a playmaker or a grinder?”
“Yeah, he’s a grinder,” Bozak said, chuckling. “You’re right.”
And on and on the list went.
This was how Braun celebrated his 14th birthday on Tuesday afternoon in downtown Toronto. He and his family had made the three-hour trek from Whitechurch, Ont., so that his brother, Lucas, could undergo the kind of difficult surgery that has unfortunately become routine for them both.
The brothers suffer from a rare bone degenerative disease known as Morquio Syndrome, which results in irregular skeletal development and will likely confine them to wheelchairs by their 20s.
It also affects their appearance, leaving them the size of children for the rest of their lives.
They now make the trip to the hospital every week to have their condition studied by doctors, visits which are made considerably more interesting when the NHL players are on hand.
“He loves it,” said Damon Kerley, the boys’ stepbrother. “It’s definitely positive; it gives him something to look forward to and brightens his day. He’s a pretty diehard fan.”
“I’ve seen him all the time,” Bozak said. “They’re at the games; his family is around by the locker room. He’s great and in high spirits, making us laugh and always cracking jokes. He’s just a fun kid to be around.
“Ever since I’ve been in Toronto, he and his brother have been a couple guys I always like to see.”
The Leafs visit to SickKids on Tuesday involved signing autographs and giving gift bags to the more than 300 children at the hospital as part of an annual tradition for the team.
After winning four games in a row, the Leafs were given the day off from practice by coach Randy Carlyle to spend the afternoon at the charity event.
Tuesday’s visit came the day after captain Dion Phaneuf was honoured as the team’s community MVP, an award he received for the Captain’s Corner program in which he has donated $250,000 to bring patients and their families to sit in a suite at every home game.
“They’re fighting a bigger battle,” Phaneuf said in an interview with CityTV.
Another Leafs veteran, John-Michael Liles, was nominated for the NHL Foundation Player Award last year for community service after spending only eight months in Toronto.
Among other initiatives, Liles spent Christmas morning serving breakfast to the homeless, started an anti-bullying program and donated thousands of dollars to autism, literacy and Cardiac Kids foundations.
All of these charity initiatives are often carried out quietly behind the scenes by some of the team’s veteran players, with the annual visit to SickKids one of the few the media are invited to attend.
Few outside of the organization, for example, knew of all of Liles’s community work until he was nominated for the award last spring.
“Everyone says we put a smile on their face, but I think it’s the other way around,” Bozak said. “It’s nice to visit the kids and make some new friends. We’re really excited and we love doing it.”
“Days like today are very humbling,” added Mark Fraser, who had bounced around the minor leagues before catching on with the Leafs in one of this year’s Cinderella stories. “We’re fortunate to be in the positions we’re in, and it’s great that we can give back, help put a smile on their face and some light into their day.”