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Belfast Giants fan Ethan finds joy in transatlantic 'ice hockey family'

 

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Hockey family: Ethan McClean takes centre stage alongside mum Yvette, David Harrower, Chris Harrower and dad Andy

Hockey family: Ethan McClean takes centre stage alongside mum Yvette, David Harrower, Chris Harrower and dad Andy

Hockey family: Ethan McClean takes centre stage alongside mum Yvette, David Harrower, Chris Harrower and dad Andy

Usually the best seats in the house at the SSE Arena are put up for grabs by the Belfast Giants, a randomly selected follower on social media getting the chance to sit rinkside for a game.

But for their clash with the Guildford Flames on February 29 - one of their final outings before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus - the seats were roped off and saved for a special group of people, for very good reason.

Occupying them were Giants superfan Ethan McClean, the 11-year-old whose battle with Duchenne muscular dystrophy has made him a familiar face among the Giants fanbase, and his parents Andy and Yvette, along with some new friends who were a long way from home.

Canadian businessman David Harrower and his son Chris may have been some 3,300 miles from their Washington abode, but the story of how their family came to know the McCleans is one of the hockey fraternity pulling through once more.

The link between the two families was made a year-and-a-half ago when Harrower spotted a post on social media shared by then Washington Capitals public announcer Wes Johnson explaining Ethan's plight, and the story touched Harrower.

Initially, he got in touch with the McCleans simply to send over a puck for Ethan's collection. But once he began conversing with Andy and Yvette, more and more ideas began to fall into place.

By the time the plans were finalised, Harrower was paying for the entire McClean family to fly out to the American capital.

"We just followed them online and through social media," he explains.

"We saw how much he loved the sport, and we've done work with US charity Dreams Come True, and I thought we'd try and arrange something with the Capitals.

"The McCleans had came over to Pittsburgh last fall and had a great time, so I thought what better than to bring over the entire family for two hockey games and a special golfing event? It's just progressed from there.

"He loved it. The best part was the smile on his face during the games and the pure joy it brings him."

The week went down a storm with the McCleans, with Ethan not only getting to go to two Capitals games, but appearing on the big screens at the Capital One Arena and also getting to meet NHL superstar Alex Ovechkin at a special golfing event run by the team at a local driving range.

"The whole thing in January was unbelievable," says dad Andy.

"To get the call and say we're bringing Ethan across was amazing. 'No' doesn't come into it with David, he just doesn't accept no as an answer!

"There were tears, there are still tears when I talk about it. The whole experience was unbelievable.

"The whole illness Ethan has causes problems around the face which means he can't smile that much, but the smiles that we could see when he was at those events were incredible."

The McCleans returned the favour in February. When David got in touch with Andy to say that he and Chris were considering coming to Northern Ireland, there was no hesitation in pulling out all the stops for their new friends from across the pond.

The pair were given a behind the scenes look at the SSE Arena and got to meet the Giants, as well as seeing around Belfast on their whistle-stop tour of the city.

"When we told Ethan that David and Chris were coming over he just couldn't wait, he was overjoyed they were here," adds Andy.

"To be able to show David and Chris our hockey family here and have them meet the guys was brilliant."

Perhaps the most incredible thing when speaking with Harrower is how he always takes the topic of conversation away from himself - there's no ego there.

He gets nothing for this and, in that position, others would maybe take all the credit for such a selfless and caring act, but the affable Canadian refused to take any for bringing Ethan and his family to the States.

Harrower smiles at Ethan, before turning back and saying: "It's not about me, it's watching the joy in his face. It's a life experience for him.

"To me, having my name in the press isn't the point.

"For me, it's about allowing him to meet his heroes. That's priceless. It's the joy of giving, you get magnitudes of ten back when you give.

"When you progress in life, you realise that it's better to give than it is to receive. Pass it along. For me, supporting the auctions and charities is what I love."

The gesture isn't lost on Andy and Yvette either who, along with daughter Amie, have dedicated their lives to giving Ethan the best experiences they can, while they can.

They've been helped by several benefactors, including Giants players past and present, leading to trips to Nashville, Atlanta and Pittsburgh prior to Washington, but Harrower's generosity went far beyond what they expected he would do.

"There are no sides when it comes to hockey," says Andy.

"There are when they're on the ice, but once the game ends it's one big family who would do anything for one another.

"Behind the scenes we're getting messages all the time - have you got this puck, have you got this jersey? It really is one huge family for us. There are so many people who need this support and it's great to see."

The McCleans and Harrowers are still in touch on a weekly basis. Having not known each other 18 months ago, a strong transatlantic friendship has flourished.

Mum Yvette adds: "It's phenomenal. It's special to have people you can reach out to that Ethan has such a connection to.

"When we started coming to the hockey, we didn't know anybody. It was Ethan who drew us into the hockey and since then we haven't looked back.

"People say it's cliche and you can't call it a hockey family, but you really can.

"When you look at people like David, it feels like family."

Belfast Telegraph