DEL CITY — Noticing the little boy with the sandy blond hair and the serious brown eyes, Tanner House broke into a grin.
“Reis! Reis!” he exclaimed. “What's going on?”
Reis Wathen didn't return House's smile, but he scrambled to his feet and extended his arms. It was obvious that the Special Olympian remembered the hockey player.
“How you doin', buddy?” House said, lifting Reis off his feet.
The way Reis hugged House's neck told the story.
In a city where the community outreach done by the major league sports team is well known, the newest pro sports franchise in town is making its own impact. The Barons are playing only their second American Hockey League season in Oklahoma City, but like their Thunder brethren, they are digging in, entrenching themselves in the community. They are making an impact beyond the ice.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the Barons Buddies program that pairs players with Special Olympians.
The franchise is doing lots of outreach programs, but none is cooler than this.
The Barons and the Buddies met for the first time in November; one front-office staffer deemed it the best community event he'd ever been involved with in more than a decade in sports. It was easy to see why when the two groups got together again earlier this week at AMF Sunny Lanes in Del City. They came to bowl, but really, it seems like they'd have had a blast regardless of the activity.
Everyone was laughing and smiling and high-fiving.
“The Barons have been so gracious,” Reis's mom, Lori, said as she watched the action on Lane No. 9. “It's just so nice.”
It's more than she and husband, Brian, anticipated when they decided to enter 9-year-old son, Reis, into the program. When they filled out their application, they were asked to indicate their player preference. Lori admits that they weren't big hockey fans, but she noticed that House wore No. 21 for the Barons. Because Reis has Trisomy 21 — the chromosomal condition that causes Down syndrome — she indicated that House was their top preference.
The Wathens had no idea how good a match it would be.
When the Barons met their Buddies for the first time a few months ago at the Cox Convention Center, House and Reis hit it off immediately. They played floor hockey. They got matching temporary tattoos. House even dressed Reis in some of the Barons' goalie gear.
He could barely walk in that getup, but it didn't stop him.
“Lots of energy,” House said of Reis. “I was so tired afterwards.”
“He wouldn't put the stick down.”
It's the kind of interaction that Shawn Byrne expected to happen.
The Oklahoma City police officer works security for many of the Barons' home games, and he is also the police department's representative for the Special Olympics' law enforcement torch run. He knew that once the hockey players got around the Special Olympians, they would love their energy and their spirit. He knew, too, that the Special Olympians would become lifelong fans.