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Nashville Predators embark on a special Christmas mission for kids of recovering addicts

It was an unusual sight, three Nashville Predators players in the bike aisle at Walmart sitting on two-wheelers much too small for them and discussing the pros and cons of buying blue versus green.
(Photo Courtesy: Mark Zaleski/For the Tennessean)

It was an unusual sight, three Nashville Predators players in the bike aisle at Walmart sitting on two-wheelers much too small for them and discussing the pros and cons of buying blue versus green.

That's when two little boys — fittingly dressed in Preds T-shirts with P.K. Subban's name on the back — appeared.

"Hey, what's up guys?," Anthony Bitetto said, as the young brothers approached the players.

"Would you guys like a bike like this? Would you get it?"

"It's got a flat tire," 8-year-old Brandon Powell, replied, his eyes wide in awe as he sized up the athletes and the bikes.

The players chuckled as a small crowd of shoppers gathered around them, all equally surprised to see the Predators trio of Bitetto, Colton Sissons and Austin Watson, in the store with carts full of clothing and toys.

Rovena Daniels, who bartends at the concession stands in the arena and happened to be shopping, got out her phone and snapped a photo from a distance.

"They just made my day," she said.

And they are about to make many others.

On Monday, Dec. 18, the Predators will host a Christmas party for 70 kids whose families are served by the 23rd District Judicial Advocates, an organization that works with addicts and their families.

It's part of an outpouring of holiday cheer and community support from a host of athletes, mascots and sports organizations who entertain on the ice or the field. Nashville's other pro sports teams have gotten in on the good feelings, too.

The Sounds staff served as bell ringers for the Salvation Army's "Rock the Red Kettle" campaign and acting as Santa's Helpers at Buena Vista Elementary helping wrap presents for students to take home and organize and sort food for their annual winter food drive.

Eight Titans players are set to visit the Nashville's Veteran’s Affairs hospital to hand out holiday cards and gifts to patients and their families and to give tickets to the Christmas Eve game to doctors, nurses and staff.

And, tomorrow, Tennessee Titans linebacker Wesley Woodyard and a few teammates will host their own holiday shopping trip with 30 middle and high school students from Youth Encouragement Services, an after-school program for inner-city youth.

"It's special for us," the Preds' Bitetto said. "Christmas is kind of my favorite time of the year. Nothing is better than getting a gift."

Unless, of course, you are giving it.

Children of addicts often forgotten during the holidays

For the children whose parents are in the drug court system, this time of year can be difficult.

The Drug Court program works to reintegrate recovering addicts into the community. It is an alternative to incarceration and combines treatment and community resources with the criminal justice system.

Participants are on house arrest as they rebuild their lives. Often, they have few financial resources to provide Christmas festivities and presents to their children.

"Addiction affects the entire family," said Kevin Batts, an attorney and director for the 23rd District drug court. "And many times, the children of addicts are the forgotten victims of the drug epidemic, especially during the holiday season."

To help, 23rd District Judicial Advocates applied for a grant from the Predators Foundation to fund a Christmas party for the kids — the Predators took it one step further. Instead of just giving money, they wanted to host the bash and provide the gifts.

That's how Sissons, Bitetto and Watson found themselves on a secret shopping mission in Walmart two weeks before Christmas.

Some fatherly experience a soon-to-be dad

Each was given a list of children's names and requests.

There were very basic needs, like underwear and jackets. And there were special items like Nerf spy gear and bicycles. Some asked for nothing more than a signed Predators puck. But that wouldn't be all they would receive.

Carts at the ready, the players took off through the store starting a friendly competition of who could fill his basket the fastest.

None of the guys, who are in their 20s, has a child just yet — though Watson is expecting his first, a little girl, on April 15.

But without previous fatherly experience, there were some hilarious shopping moments.

Trying to determine what size shoe a 2-year-old would wear, for example, gave Bitetto a little bit of trouble.

"Shopping for kids is tough," he said, holding up a cute pair of kicks just big enough for a 6-month old. "Anyone know where the sizes are?"

His buddies were little help.

"I've already lost my cart," Sissons laughed, spinning in circles near the socks.

By the time the trio made it to the girls clothing area, Sissons was all business. With a determined look on his face, he sized up tiny red dresses and unicorn-covered t-shirts.

"This a great little outfit," he said, looking at the black leggings and shirt dotted in gold hearts that he paired together.

Like kids in a candy store

Vickie Howard didn't expect to see anyone special as she embarked on a late-afternoon shopping trip at Walmart last week, but there the hockey players were, like kids in a candy store, bouncing up and down the toy aisles for race tracks and princess houses and more.

By the time the Predators made it to the boys clothing section, browsing the hoodies and picking out khakis, Howard's boyfriend of eight years, Junior Randall, made sure she took a photo with them.

"I passed by three times before I got the courage to ask," Howard said, a smile on her face.

"I think it's awesome," Randall said of the Predators giving back in this way. A big-time Preds fan hoping for a Stanley Cup, he didn't realize waiting for an oil change would become such a cool experience.

'Hopefully, it makes a lot of kids smile this Christmas'

Plenty of Nashville kids will think it's awesome, too, when they are surprised today with a special Christmas party at Bridgestone Arena hosted by the three guys.

Tonight, the children will receive presents, visit with Santa and eat a holiday meal with their families at Bridgestone Arena.

Part of the mission of the 23rd Judicial District Drug Court Program, which was established 18 years ago to aid addicted offenders, is to help parents rebuild healthy relationships with their children.

"This holiday party will give them a boost toward building their self-esteem as they celebrate the holidays with their children," Batts said. "This will make a huge difference in their recovery."

The shopping trip totaled more $5,500, not including the gifts Predators staff purchased personally for families. Just looking at the list and being able to say, "Yup, I'll get this and this and this," was the most fun for Watson. "It's incredible."

"We got lots and lots of gifts," Sissons added. "Hopefully, it will make a lot of kids smile this Christmas."

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