Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / Rivard Report
A.J. Greer remembers the bright lights of the TV cameras. He remembers the sportscasters and microphones, the newspaper headlines and magazine articles.
Near the end of 2007, Canada was talking about him, the best-known youth hockey player in the land. But it wasn’t athleticism or precocious talent that put Greer on national television. It was his heart.
He had organized a hockey event to benefit a children’s hospital in Montreal. He’d arranged for the names of sick children to be stitched on his teammates’ jerseys. He and his father secured pucks, sticks, and gear from NHL teams to be auctioned off. Greer called the event, “Nous jouons pour toi,” French for, “We play for you.”
Greer also remembers this: The “We Play For You” event drew approximately 2,000 fans to Aréna Répentigny and raised more than $23,000. On the day after he played for the sick children who’d inspired him, Greer turned 11.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Greer, now 20 and a star forward for the San Antonio Rampage, “to give back and show my gratitude.”
Gratitude came early. Christopher-James Greer, A.J.’s older brother by 6 years, was born with hydrocephalus, a brain disorder. At 6 days old, surgeons inserted a shunt into his brain to drain fluid and relieve pressure. It was the first of seven operations at CHU Sainte-Justine, ranked among the top mother-child hospitals in the world.
A.J. would not only visit his brother. He would check on other boys and girls at the hospital, entering their rooms to cheer them up. “He was around 4 years old,” said Wayne Greer, A.J.’s father. “He was the kind of child who wanted to give others a reason to smile.”
What started then continues today. On his off days with the Rampage, A.J. visits boys and girls in a local children’s hospital. He talks football and baseball, tell stories, makes the kids laugh, does whatever he can to take their minds off their illness.
“I love, love children,” A.J. said. “When I can visit them at a hospital in San Antonio or wherever, it’s something I really enjoy. It’s a value my parents have given to me.”
The son of retired firefighter Wayne and accounting clerk Josée, A.J. grew up on the ice in Joliette, Québec. He began playing hockey at age 3 and also became a competitive figure skater, like Christopher-James. As the brothers grew, the younger in awe of the older, they took different paths. Christopher-James focused on figure skating and performed for Disney on Ice. A.J. left figure skating to pursue hockey.
At 14, he left home to attend prep school. At 17, he skipped his senior year, enrolled at Boston University and became the nation’s youngest forward. After a year-and-a-half, A.J. left college to play for the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Impressed with his play, the Colorado Avalanche selected A.J., a 6-foot-3, 205-pound left wing, in the second round of the 2015 NHL draft.
He started the 2016-27 season with the Rampage, received a call-up to Colorado, played five NHL games with the Avalanche in November 2016, and was reassigned to San Antonio. In 42 games with the Rampage, A.J. ranks second in points (31) and first in assists (19).
His path to professional hockey is lined with adoring children, many ill, some now deceased, all touched by his kindness. One little girl named Gabrielle stands out. When A.J. stepped on the ice to raise money for Sainte-Justine, her name was stitched on his jersey. Two months later, A.J. and his mother went to visit Gabrielle in the cancer wing of the children’s hospital. They were told she was gone.
“A.J. started to cry,” Josée said, “just like me.””
To preserve her memory, A.J. took the patch with Gabrielle’s name and placed it in his hockey bag.
A.J. feels as comfortable in a children’s hospital as he does on ice. Putting a smile on a young face is like scoring a goal. One hat-trick is a good visit. Two is better. Three or more is the best.
Wayne did not know A.J. was visiting sick children in San Antonio until the Rivard Report told him.
“I didn’t know he had time in his schedule,” Wayne marveled. “But he has always done this. It speaks to who he has become as a young man.”
Father and son organized a second fundraiser for Sainte-Justine in 2008. Unforeseen events prevented a third fundraiser but the entire family – Josée and Christopher-James worked tirelessly as well – made an impression. They raised more than $30,000 and inspired a community of 15,000. “It was mind blowing,” Christopher-James said. “We were lost for words.”
At Boston University, A.J. volunteered with Autism Speaks to raise awareness and compassion. He walked and skated for kids and wore a patch with the name of an autistic child on his jersey.
As a star with the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies, A.J. hatched an idea after scoring a goal in the 2016 President’s Cup. A photographer captured A.J. flexing a bicep to celebrate, the image went viral, and fans began mimicking the pose in the stands. A.J. paid an artist to paint two copies of the image. He kept one and donated the second to the Huskies to auction off for a children’s hospital.
“It’s surprising to me that you are aware of this,” Wayne told the Rivard Report. “He does these things and doesn’t tell anybody. A.J. is going to be the best father anybody could possibly want. I’ve never seen a kid with so much love for other kids.”
As a 10-year-old, A.J. pitched an idea to his dad at dinner. After visiting sick children at the hospital where his brother was being treated, A.J. wondered if he could invite them to a hockey game. An afternoon at the rink could give them an enjoyable distraction, a little something to cheer them up.
Wayne said that would not be possible. But he offered an alternative: a day of hockey games played on behalf of sick children. Father and son discussed raising money, securing items to be auctioned, giving the proceeds away. A plan was born.
Word spread. Reporters began calling. Requests came to appear on national television. After the charity event ended, 12-year-old A.J. delivered a speech and presented a check to the hospital. The media moved on to the next story but A.J. never let the memory go.
He carried the patch with Gabrielle’s name in his hockey bag for years. Then he took it out. The red jersey patch now hangs on the wall of his bedroom in Joliette, just below a shelf with an autographed baseball and couple of hockey pucks. The white lettering spells: “Gabrielle … My First Star.”