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Comfort soup

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks
For Ben Szakun, wonton soup is more than an ancient Chinese entrée.

The mixture of dumplings, noodles and broth signifies perseverance, triumph, the end of one conquest and the beginning of another journey.

And, most importantly, hope.

The 15-year-old from North Delta has eaten a lot of soup over the years and he’s earned every slurp of his comfort food. Born with congenital heart defect, Ben has undergone 14 surgeries and procedures, beginning with a 14-hour open-heart surgery when he was just six-months-old.

A myriad of different problems with the plumbing of Ben’s heart presented at birth and he now lives with an internal pacemaker and defibrillator; you wouldn’t know it from looking at him, but he’s part Ironman.

He’s got the same tenacity of Tony Stark as well.

That’s what recently drew Ben to sharing wonton soup with his hero at Kirin restaurant in Vancouver.

Because of the difficulties Ben has overcome, the Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon Chapter gave him the opportunity to have a wish come true, whatever wish he could dream up.

His three older siblings envisioned a tropical family vacation. Mom thought visiting Oprah would be neat. Dad knew it would be hockey related, most likely involving the Canucks.

Ben was precise with his request: “I wish to have wonton soup with Alexandre Burrows!”

Next thing Ben knew, he was at Rogers Arena watching the Canucks practice in late January. Wearing a yellow, orange and black flying skate jersey, with a blue Canucks Burrows shirt underneath, Ben admired his idols from a far until he was given media access to the dressing room post-practice. That’s when he met Alex Burrows for the first time and thus began the best afternoon of Ben’s life.

He received a personal tour of the Canucks room from Burrows ending a Gate 16 of Rogers Arena, where a black stretch limousine was waiting. Ben and Alex were first in, following by Ben’s parents Jerry and Janet, his sister, and three staff members from Make-A-Wish and the Canucks.

It was a relaxed drive through the streets of downtown Vancouver, giving Ben and Alex time to bond. The 11-year Canucks veteran did most of the talking as the 11-year Canucks fan sat in awe, lost for words in the presence of the one and only Alex Burrows.

But why Burrows? What about the gritty forward agreed with Ben so much he painted his room Canucks colours, has a shrine of pictures of him plastered everywhere and caused Ben to mimic the forward’s bow and arrow celebration after he scored his first ball hockey goal a few years ago?

For starters, the number 14 has always been special to the Szakun family because Jerry wore it growing up. Yet even if Burrows had chosen a different number, Janet believes her son would have gravitated to the grinder anyways.

“Burrows is his mentor because he sees him pushing hard and through a lot of adversity,” explained Janet. “There are times when Ben doesn’t feel like doing this or that, and he knows he has to push past it. Since Ben was five-years-old, Burrows has been on the ice giving everything and trying his best. Ben has been doing the same, giving everything he has.”

During lunch, which began with wonton soup, conversation ranged from Burrows’ favourite hockey memories and fight to make the NHL, to how Jerry isn’t known for taking good family photos and Janet being in awe of how nice Burrows is.

Ben was eerily quiet. He soaked in the experience.

“He was so excited this week, I just wish he could have relaxed a bit more, he had some questions he was too shy to ask, but this experience will stay with him forever,” said Janet.

“What really hit home for me was Burrows saying that even in pro hockey it’s not all rainbows, you have to work hard and that being mentally strong is very important. Everybody has challenges, everybody has things they have to push past and I really appreciated Burrows explaining that.

“For Ben, this hurts and he gets tired and sometimes you just want to rest and not push past it, but then you have to dig deep and keep going. I think that’s why he’s bonded with him.”

The meal ended with Burrows giving Ben a personalized jersey and tickets for the family to watch the Canucks face the Nashville Predators the following night.

There were also some numbers scribbled in the ticket envelope, 10 numbers to be exact.

“If you need anything,” said Burrows, “or want to talk when things aren’t going well, give me a call. I admire your fight and I'm here for you.”

Future wonton soup it is.

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