Fish bowl helmets, a virtual Kiss Cam with no kissing, and hologram fans were ideas so good, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had to connect with the person behind them.
Ten-year-old Jax Brenneman dreamed up the possibilities for the NHL’s eventual return because he’s been missing hockey so much and sent them to the League. He didn’t think Commissioner Bettman would actually respond.
“He was so excited,” Brenneman’s mother Ellen Kalis told NHL.com. “We all were. It was one of those things where you don’t really expect an answer back and when he got it, he was so proud.”
Brenneman has been obsessed with hockey ever since his grandparents started taking him to Kitchener Rangers games in the OHL. He eventually asked if he could start playing, and even though he struggled, his love for the game helped motivate him to get better.
Kalis and her husband Robert Brenneman, who live in Thornbury, Ontario, adopted Jax from Ethiopia when he was 8 months old. They noticed he had some challenges during his development, but being new parents, they believed he was just adjusting to his new surroundings. At 15 months old, Jax was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a permanent disorder that affects the parts of the brain that control movement and balance.
“When he was 15 months old, it was really hard to know what that was going to look like for him,” Kalis said. “But what it turned into, he’s 10 now, he’s such a bright, active, crazy kid.”
When he first got on the ice, it didn’t go well. But he battled because he wanted so badly to play.
“We put him in all the gear and the learn to skate programs and he was Bambi out there,” Kalis said. “It was really hard for him. Compared to other kids with CP, he’s very capable but still not the same as a typical kid but he loved it and he pushed through it.”
Playing the game gave him confidence and an environment where he could thrive.
“One great thing about when Jax plays hockey is he feels part of something and he really doesn’t feel any different than the other kids,” Kalis said. “He loves the feeling of skating fast.”
His love of hockey also facilitated his writing. His first letter was to forward Connor Bunnaman, who was the captain of the Kitchener Rangers at the time and is in the Philadelphia Flyers organization. Bunnaman wrote back and the two struck up a friendship. He still stays in touch.
Once the COVID-19 pandemic caused the NHL pause and school closures, Kalis thought writing letters would be a good way to keep Jax engaged in learning since his mind is always on the game. While the family has been in quarantine, Jax is shooting pucks in the basement when he’s not watching reruns of games on TV, reading hockey books and thumbing through his hockey cards.
“The idea came from trying to encourage my son to write because it’s not something he loves to do,” Kalis said. “Because he loves hockey so much, I asked him what he could write about that’s hockey related, and he wanted to write about bringing hockey back because he misses it so much.”
The writing process can be a long and difficult one for Jax, who has physical and learning disabilities. He also has a severe speech impediment, so working on all forms of communication is important.
“It can be hard for people to understand him but he talks and, oh god, if he talks about hockey he won’t stop, but it’s really hard to understand. That poses a lot of challenges with communicating with people so that’s why we’re really working on writing,” Kalis said. “His learning disabilities make writing really hard. And he’s got physical disabilities with his fingers. He’s got a lot going on and to make it all come together and work for him.”
For his letter to Commissioner Bettman, Jax and his parents talked about what he wanted to ask, then he typed it out with the help of predictive text, and they discussed it some more. It took him about two hours to complete the letter.
“I kind of set the expectation that you might not hear back,” Kalis said. “Like, he’s a busy guy. And then a week later, he responded.”
Getting the letter back from Commissioner Bettman provided such a boost, Jax has already started writing to his favorite players too.
“I think this will motivate him to keep writing,” Kalis said.
Dear Mr. Bettman,
My mom told me that the NHL may start this summer.
I have some questions and ideas for you.
q1. when does the NHL officially start?
q2. where will the games be held?
q3. will there be goal horns?
q4. Will they ever play in their own arenas again?
q5. Will the players hug after when the score?
idea1. There should only be one player in the change room at a time
idea 2. Everyone in the arena should stay one large hockey stick apart except for the players on the ice.
idea 3. each hockey player on the ice should have fish bowl helmets
idea 4. There should be holograms of the fans in the stands
idea 5. Create an app that fans can use at home that’s like the kiss cam at games where you can show pictures of fans. But please no kissing.
thank you for considering my ideas.
hockey’s number one fan,
# 12 Georgian Shores lightning
Thanks so much for writing. We could use you on the committee planning how we will get the NHL back on the ice.
Your ideas are not only interesting and intriguing, some actually have been brought up in our discussions with the players. You obviously know and love hockey. If that wasn’t clear from your letter, it is certainly clear from the photo you sent with it.
Let me try to answer your questions as best I can.
1.When does the NHL officially start?
It is impossible for me to stay, right now. It all depends on when we are told by doctors and our leaders that it is safe and how long it will take our players to get back into game condition.
2. Where will the games be held?
We’ve been working on trying to answer this difficult question. For now, it looks like the plan that makes the most sense is to bring groups of our teams to a few cities where we can play several games each day and keep everybody healthy. But nothing is set and we will continue to consider and all ideas – including the ones you’ve sent me.
3. Will there be goal horns?
Good question. If we can’t fans in the arenas when we first start playing again, we’re going to need some noise.
4. Will they ever play in their own arenas again?
I know it’s frustrating now. But, at some point, we will be back to the way things were, with our teams in their own home arenas in front of home fans like you.
5. Will the players hug after they score?
We’ll listen to what the doctors tell us. I’m sure that things like celebrations will be a little different, at least at the beginning, when we get back on the ice.
Thanks again for writing and for sharing your ideas with us. I can’t wait until our players are back on the ice in the NHL and when you and your teammates can get back on the ice playing the game you love.
Gary B. Bettman