ATLANTIC CITY - The message went out on Facebook and through emails. It asked for donations to help an unnamed 11-year-old boy whose ice-hockey equipment had been stolen.
Gage Grist lost from $1,500 to $2,000 worth of gear and had nothing to replace it because he already had given all of his old equipment to the Art Dorrington Foundation, a charity that uses ice hockey to emphasize life skills and academic achievement to local children.
But Grist didn't know that people who worked at the Flyers Skate Zone had rallied the tiny hockey community together.
He found out soon enough.
In fewer than 48 hours, the Linwood resident had everything he needed to get back on the ice, including a visor that he needs for his helmet because he's legally blind.
Friends and strangers had chipped in and bought all-new replacement equipment for Gage.
"I kind of started crying because this is my life. It's what I love to do," said Grist, who plays for the Atlantic City Sharks' Pee-Wee "A" team. "I couldn't believe how many helped out, how many helped donate the things."
Last week, Grist's father, Norman Grist, had momentarily taken the boy's hockey bag out of his truck at a lumber yard to create space in the vehicle. The elder Grist forgot to put the bag back in the vehicle. When he realized he left it, Norman drove back to the yard, but the bag was gone.
The Grists filed a police report and figured they would never see the equipment again.
However, on Monday, they received a call notifying them that someone had found the hockey bag at a construction site in Atlantic City. It was returned with all of his equipment, minus the medication he takes for his eyes. Gage and his parents then donated his old helmet and gloves to another child in the Sharks organization.
"I just want to say thank you to everyone who helped. It's been so overwhelming," Gage's mother, Colleen Grist, said. "We had people from opposing teams donate stuff. One mom came up to me and said they would donate half the money from a coin drop to Gage. Then to have someone find the bag and go out of their way to find the kid who lost it … it's been incredible."
Gage's parents offered to pay back some of the families who had contributed to buy the new equipment just for Gage. Some of the new equipment was too large for him, but the donating families told the Grists to keep it because he'd grow into it soon enough and they could donate anything he wouldn't keep, Colleen said.
"That's how hockey is," Colleen Grist said. "That is kind of the concept of the whole hockey world. You grow out of something and you pass it on."
It was especially frustrating to Gage, who only wants to skate. He had signed a contract with his mother that if his grades got lower than a B, he would have to give it up and focus on his schoolwork.
That hasn't happened.
To help defray the cost, Gage buys his own equipment. He saves money from birthdays and holidays to get what he needs, most recently buying gloves and a girdle two Mondays ago.
Some of his new favorite donated equipment include a visor, helmet and gloves.
"I love hockey so much because it's thrilling," Gage said. "You never know what's going to come next."
Nicki Costello, an office worker at the Flyers Skate Zone here and manager of Gage's team, reached out to the community to lend support. She was overwhelmed by the response but not surprised.
"The one thing that is great about the sport of hockey is that if one thing happens, everyone has their back," Costello said. "The part that was shocking was that there were little kids who wanted to help. You expect that from adults, but the children wanted to give stuff."
Most people who go to the Skate Zone know Gage. He's constantly at the arena helping anyway he can: working the time clock, taking out the garbage or straightening up the rental skates.
Hockey has been a passion of his since he was about 5, when his mother took him to an Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies games. He soon started skating and seemingly never wanted to stop - despite his vision disability. He's had six surgeries on his eyes and has no peripheral vision. Gage needs to wear a visor to protect his eyes when he skates.
When Colleen Grist first learned her son's equipment had gone missing, she broke down in tears. She didn't want her son to lose hockey.
"It was devastating," said Colleen, who works at a Children's Hospital of Philadelphia pediatric care office in Somers Point. "He's here (at the ice rink) all the time, every single day. When he heard he was getting donated equipment, he didn't care. He said, 'Just as long as I get back on the ice.' "
Teammates donated equipment. Neighbors did as well. Costello said that some people who didn't even know Gage came to the Skate Zone to donate money for the visor, which was the last piece they needed.
"We spend all these hours together. We are a family," said Andrea Allen, of Northfield, whose son plays with Gage and donated equipment. "We were really upset. I felt like crying because that is his whole life. Hockey is everything to him."
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