They’re grown men playing professional hockey now, but when Bonnie O’Reilly’s boys were growing up in Seaforth, Ont., Graham Nesbitt was a local legend.
As manager of the local arena in the community of about 3,000 people, located an hour north of London, Nesbitt would open the doors on snow days or after regular hours so scores of local kids could skate.
“They’d call and say, ‘Is there any way we can get onto the ice before school?'” recalls Graham’s son, Joe Nesbitt. “He’d have the arena open at 6:30 a.m. so people could skate. He just wanted kids to be active and busy, not getting into trouble. It was his outlet as a kid and he wanted to pass it on.”
Both of O’Reilly’s sons went on to play in the NHL. Ryan is the captain of the St. Louis Blues, and after winning the Stanley Cup with the team in 2019, he brought it back to Seaforth and nearby Goderich.
Her other son, Cal, played for a few different NHL teams and is currently with the Lehigh Valley Phantoms of the American Hockey League.
Now, for the guy who helped give her sons and other kids a bit of extra ice time, O’Reilly has given the assist of a lifetime. On Wednesday, she donated one of her kidneys to Nesbitt, who is 65. The transplant surgery took place in London, and both Nesbitt and O’Reilly are recovering well.
The St. Louis Blues shared a photo on social media of Nesbitt and O’Reilly giving the thumbs up from adjacent hospital beds.
On Thursday, Pam Nesbitt, Graham’s wife, expressed her gratitude on Facebook.
“From our family to you and yours Bonnie, thanks for the gift of a lifetime,” she said. “Your selfless act means more than you’ll ever know.”
Nesbitt retired as Seaforth’s arena manager in 2003, going on to work for Olympia Ice Resurfacing and later the Ontario Recreation Facilities Association.
He’s known all over southwestern Ontario as a good guy to call if your arena ice isn’t coming in right or the resurfacing machine goes wonky.
‘My dad is just blown away by this’
In 2011, Nesbitt was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, also known as Berger’s disease. Patients with the disease build up an antibody in the kidneys that over time can limit their ability to filter blood. Medication helped control Nesbitt’s condition until 2019, when it became clear he’d need a kidney transplant.
Many in the the Seaforth area stepped up for Nesbitt, offering to become donors.
When O’Reilly was identified as a good match, she agreed to give Nesbitt one of her kidneys.
“She says that ‘What you’ve done for my boys, helping them achieve their goal of playing professional hockey, it’s the least we can do,'” Joe Nesbitt said, quoting O’Reilly. “My dad is just blown away by this.”
To him, the donation is evidence of the special bond that often forms among hockey families.
“Your team growing up, you become more than just a team, you kind of become family,” Joe Nesbitt said. “It’s kind of left me speechless.
“Something my dad’s always taught me is to be kind and helpful and generous to everybody,” he said. “It just goes to show that those thoughtful acts and caring for people, it pays off. It truly paid off for my dad and saved his life.”
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