"My name is Lera, and I'm really thankful and happy to be here."
Lera Doederlein wasn't sure what to expect as she entered through the doors to the Ducks locker room last Friday afternoon. Led by Ducks head coach Dallas Eakins, Doederlein, an avid sled hockey player, knew she was there to share her story to the team before a recent practice at Honda Center. But speaking in front of a group of people, especially an NHL team, isn't always an easy task. The Ducks have had guest speakers before, but never one quite like her.
Born in Russia and adopted at the age of 21 months, Doederlein wore leg braces and used crutches most of her life due to being born with a condition called Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita (in both legs). After several surgeries and facing life in a wheelchair, Doederlein decided to take control of her mobility in 2017 and elected to have a double above-knee amputation. She was just 14 years of age at the time.
Seated in the Ducks locker room on Friday were her parents, David and Fami. Next to them, Eakins. Lera, now 16, spoke of a conversation she had with her doctor in 2017, who recommended amputation.
"I was like, 'What? What is this?' I didn't know what to do," Doederlein said in the locker room. "My parents looked at me, and they asked 'What do you want to do?' I said, 'I want freedom.'"
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That freedom can be seen in the two prosthetic legs she wears. No more heavy leg braces or crutches. She was met with rousing applause after her speech. She said it only took a few moments to shake the nerves.
"I was a little nervous, but then I realized they were all just there to listen," she said with a smile. "I was like, 'Okay, I'll just talk.'"
- Discovering a Passion -
Doederlein was shown the sport of sled hockey not long after her surgery, and her love for the game grew immediately. Originally from Arizona, Doederlein got started with the Arizona Coyotes sled hockey program before she moved to San Diego last year. There, she joined the San Diego Ducks sled hockey team and quickly made the jump from the youth squad to the adult team due to her advanced skill.
Since joining the San Diego team, Doederlein has become an avid Ducks fan. She formed a personal connection with goaltender John Gibson and his wife, Alexa, through their involvement with San Diego sled hockey. Last season, the Gibsons held sled hockey clinics at Honda Center and hosted the team in a suite on two separate occasions.
Video: We're honored to unveil our 21st Duck Lera Doederlein
This past July, Doederlein tried out for - and was named to - the U.S. Women's Development Sled Hockey Team composed of 18 players (nine forwards, six defensemen and three goaltenders). This year's team includes 15 returnees and three newcomers - one of them being Doederlein.
- A Tradition Continues -
The speech Doederlein gave to the Ducks came after she was surprised by the news that she had been named the 21st Duck for this season. At the end of a recent sled hockey practice at Great Park Ice in Irvine, Doederlein and the other players gathered near the bench for what they thought was a group photo. That's when defenseman Josh Manson walked onto the ice with a jersey in his hand. Gibson was already on the ice with the sled hockey team.
"Before Manson came out, Lera was fixing her hair getting ready for the picture," Gibson said. "One minute later, she's the 21st Duck and invited to our practice. She was excited. Everything she's fought through. Her story, to give her the recognition and have her come out with us, it's an honor she'll be out there with us."
The 21st Duck is a tradition the organization started in 2015 that creates a spot on the Opening Night roster to honor a fan who "embodies perseverance, character, courage and inspiration, or is making significant contributions to the local community." Doederlein joins previous 21st Ducks Kai Quinonez, Katie Hawley and Michael Lu.
It wasn't long after her speech inside the Ducks locker room when Doederlein found out she was more than just a guest speaker. There, inside the room, was a locker stall set aside just for her, and hanging inside was a Ducks jersey with her name along with the number 21.
The Ducks put her to work. She watched the first half of practice from the bench, sitting shoulder to shoulder with her new teammates. Then, she was told to suit up.
She entered through the Zamboni tunnel and made her way to the opposite end of the ice where the Ducks gathered to go over a drill. Eakins brought her over to the dry-erase board to go over the details. "You get one chance at a rebound, and then you have to sprint out over the blueline," he said. "Got it? Just jump right in line with those guys."
Doederlein lined up and went through the rotation. She started alongside Adam Henrique, and the two exchanged passes before Henrique took a shot on net. Once the puck caromed into the corner, both skaters hustled back to the blueline, Doederlein digging the picks at the ends of her sticks into the ice to generate speed.
The Ducks finished off practice with a breakaway competition that included Doederlein, who, during the sled hockey clinic at Great Park Ice, told Gibson she could score on him. Sure enough, Doederlein skated in and scored on Gibson, generating a huge cheer from her teammates.
It was an unforgettable experience for Doederlein, who managed to tuck a few more past Gibson before practice ended.
"It was awesome," she said. "I was kind of nervous. I didn't really know how I'd do. I thought I'd trip them all or something like that. It just feels awesome to be a part of the team. The way the guys accepted me and joked around. They all made me comfortable being there. The best."
Her parents watched from the stands, cheering when she scored and snapping photos and recording videos to capture the moment.
"It was really rewarding for us to be able to see her out there with the Ducks," said dad, David. "What's most important to me is not only was she having fun, but the Ducks were really watching after her, getting her involved and making sure she felt like she was a part of the team. Knowing Lera, that's really rewarding for her."
Added mom, Fami, "Feeling that great welcome, feeling like she's a part of the team, that's an incredible feeling for her."
- Rolling Up In Style -
Before practice started, Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf sat down with Doederlein to go over a few details. The topic of cars came up. "What's your favorite car?" he asked her. The answer, without hesitation, a Lamborghini. "Lambo? Okay," he said. "I'll bring one for us [on Thursday]. I'll pick you up in it. It'll be awesome."
On Opening Night, Doederlein will show up in a Lamborghini, walk the orange carpet alongside Getzlaf and skate onto the ice as she's introduced as the team's 21st Duck. "That'll be really special for Lera to be able to be out there," David said. "One of the great things about her is she's very humble. She'll take it all in stride and be very appreciative.
"She's one of the strongest people we know," her dad added. "She's also one of the toughest. We've never seen her as having a disability. Her motto has always been No bad days, ever. Every day, she takes hold and makes the most of it."
It'll be a night the Doederlein family will remember forever.
"I'm thrilled to walk the orange carpet," she said, with a smile. "Really excited."
Check out photos of Doederlein at Ducks practice.