At first glance, Christopher Richard Muise of Topsfield, Massachusetts, looks pretty much like any healthy, fuzzy-cheeked 10-year-old. The precocious Proctor School 5th grader loves hanging out with his friends, loves playing hockey with his Masco Youth Hockey team, loves following his hometown Boston Bruins. He idolizes the Bruins captain, Joe Thornton (he’s even adopted Thornton’s nickname, Batman) and Chris Chelios of the Detroit Red Wings. But if you knew about Christopher’s birthday party last August, you’d understand there’s something different, and something special, about this youngster.
On Aug. 18, with a big assist from his dad, Christopher hosted two-dozen of his best hockey buddies for a pick-up hockey game and pizza party at the Graf Rink in Newburyport. But instead of presents, each of youngsters brought checks, written out to the Cam Neely Foundation, to benefit the Neely House for the families of cancer patients at the New England Medical Center in Boston. The final result of the inaugural Christopher Muise Hockey Rink Rat Invitational Shoot-Out was an 11-11 tie, but no one was complaining about the stalemate. The reason? Everyone got to play, everyone enjoyed plenty of pizza afterwards, and the group raised $1,000 for the Neely House.
“I though it was a great thing for kids to do, the fact that they would forego any presents they might have received and instead have people donate to a worthy cause,” says Eric Gutowski, a Masco Youth Hockey coach who’s son, Christian, plays alongside Christopher Muise on the Masco Squirt C team. “It was great for Chris, but also important for all the kids and parents involved.”
Christopher’s dad, Christopher Russell Muise, known by everyone in the Masco program as Coach Muise, couldn’t agree more. The elder Muise recognizes that “99 percent of the kids from Boxford, Topsfield and Middleton are not needing of anything. Most of the Tri-Town area is very affluent. The kids get whatever they want, for the most part. They all get whatever they need. So to have them do something that wasn’t just ‘Me, me, me, me,’ was pretty special.”
The seed for the charity game was actually planted a month beforehand. While the two were sharing some quiet time on their backyard patio during the 4th of July weekend, Coach Muise asked his son to think about doing something for others on his birthday. “I didn’t want another toy fest,” says Coach Muise. “He’s an only child -- he doesn’t get spoiled, but he pretty much gets what he needs. And I told him, ‘Chris, you don’t need more toys, you don’t play with the stuff you’ve got now. Why don’t we do something worthwhile with your birthday?’”
An initial suggestion from Christopher’s mom, Bonnie Muise, to collect books for the local library, got only a lukewarm reception. Christopher was apparently thinking of something closer to his heart. “Two years ago, this past October, my mother died of cancer,” says Coach Muise. “We got talking about that, and Chris said, ‘Dad, why don’t we do something for cancer?’” Both son and dad were aware of the NHL’s Hockey Fights Cancer campaign, and had attended the Bruins-Hurricane game when referee and cancer-survivor Paul Stewart made his return to the ice. But cancer again hit close to the Muise home when a very close relative, Christopher’s cousin-in-law, was diagnosed with cancer and began treatment at the New England Medical Center. That encouraged father and son to think about the Neely House, the facility built by the Cam Neely Foundation to provide lodging and support for families of cancer patients.
Once they decided on a charity, Christopher sat down and made out his invitation list. “Mostly it was Mites, Squirts and Pee-Wees, and they’re all my friends,” says Christopher. “I picked a few of my friends, and then if they had younger brothers and sisters who played hockey, I’d invite them too. I invited the team from last year, and my team from this year.”
The manager of the Graf Rink in Newburyport, Bill Roberts, donated the ice time, in part to say “thank you” for the support that the Masco program has given the rink over the years. Coach Muise, who along with another Masco official, Bob Shea, handled the coaching duties, provided specially designed Rink Rat jerseys. The 24 youngsters, ranging in age from 6 to 12 years old, were divided into two teams, with each team sporting a Big Line, a Medium Line and a Little Guys Line. Everyone played, 4-on-4, with rubber goalies tending the nets. With seconds to go, Christopher Muise scored the goal that allowed his team to salvage the 11-11 tie.
“My favorite part about the party was that I wasn’t just doing it for me,” says Christopher. “The night afterwards, me and my dad were watching Fan Attic on NESN, and we saw Cam Neely playing. And my dad said ‘We just raised a $1,000 for his foundation.’ That felt good.”
The Cam Neely Foundation was founded by the former Bruins star, along with his siblings, after he lost both parents to cancer. Coach Muise says he hopes the youngsters who participated in his son’s charity hockey game came away with a better understanding of life’s big picture.
“All these kids learned a lesson, and the lesson was it’s not all just about them,” says Coach Muise. “You can’t buy that.”
Following the party, Christopher and his dad were invited to visit the Neely House to present the checks, and a week later he received an autographed photo and book from Cam Neely, which he keeps in his own “Wall of Fame” at his Topsfield home. Cam and Scott Neely also sent a letter personally addressed to Christopher which read: “On behalf the Neely foundation, we want to express our sincere appreciation and thanks to your teammates and parents for your support of the Neely House. Your willingness to do this for charity is very admirable.”
Shortly afterwards, at an Ice Devils hockey camp at Hockeytown in Saugus, Christopher got a personal “thank you” from Don Sweeney, currently the senior member of the Bruins defensive corps. Sweeney, who also serves on the advisory board of the Neely House, told Christopher how impressed he was about the fund-raiser, and promised he would make sure Cam Neely knew about it.
“Afterwards, Chris tells me, ‘Whoa, Dad! Don Sweeney came up to talk to me, I mean he really talked to me, and he signed my shirt,’” says Coach Muise. “So he’s learning the importance of giving back. He’s learning from his parents. My wife is the den leader for the scouts. I’m as involved as I can be. My kid gets so much out of hockey, and it’s making such a good kid out of him, that I have to put that much time back into it.”
And the Muises will continue to give back. Christopher’s Webelo Pack 81, under the direction of his mom, is making “sunshine baskets” for each of the 18 rooms at the Neely House. And the Rink Rats charity game created such a buzz, says Coach Muise, that he, Christopher, and other Masco hockey officials have decided to expand the format for 2003, with several teams invited to play in a round-robin, non-championship “friendship tournament” next August. Roberts at the Graf Rink has again agreed to donate the ice time (no small sum, at roughly $200 an hour), and a sponsor is being sought to provide team jerseys. All proceeds generated by the tournament fees will again be presented to the Neely House.
Not surprisingly, Coach Muise envisions a tradition that will carry on for years to come, until Christopher himself has children lacing up skates.
“I said to Chris, ‘I hope when your 50 years old, you and your hockey buddies are still getting together and doing this, because you’ll have been doing it for 40 years. Next year’s will be better, and someday you’ll be sitting in the locker room, rubbing Ben Gay on your legs, getting ready to play with your son,’” says Coach Muise.
If that prediction holds true, Christopher Muise, even if he doesn’t realize his dreams of playing in the National Hockey League, will always have a legacy he can look back on with pride. There will be hundreds of cancer patients, and their families, to remind him.