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Checking In with the 21st Ducks

Past honorees Kai Quinonez, Katie Hawley and Michael Lu were part of the festivities on Opening Night and gave updates on their inspiring lives

by Adam Brady @AdamJBrady / AnaheimDucks.com

It was an extraordinary moment during Thursday evening's Opening Night at Honda Center, when this year's 21st Duck Lera Doederlein was introduced to the sellout crowd. The 16-year-old double-above-knee amputee and sled hockey player cruised out to center ice alongside the rest of the Ducks team, and joined them in saluting the 17,000-plus in attendance just before Anaheim took on Arizona to start the regular season.

Video: 21st Duck Lera Doederlein Introduced On Ice

Just before heading out there from the corner of the rink, Doederlein was flanked by the three previous 21st Ducks - Kai Quinonez, Katie Hawley and Michael Lu - all of whom no doubt flashed back to their own emotional Opening Night moments of years past. All three are still overcoming their challenges, but they continue to embody the perseverance, character, courage, and inspiration that is emblematic of being the 21st Duck.

Kai Quinonez
Kai was the first-ever 21st Duck honoree back in 2015 at the age of 13. He was diagnosed with aplastic anemia when he was just 9, and through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the youth hockey player was afforded the opportunity to practice with the Ducks and join them for the home opener. He arrived that evening with his favorite player, Hampus Lindholm, and soon was surprised with the news that he would skate out with the team.  

"The main thing I remember is all the guys you see on TV, all of a sudden you see them in person," says Quinonez, now a 16-year-old junior at Los Alamitos High School. "They were such nice guys and so fun to be around. It was a great experience."

Watch: Youtube Video

Kai plays both hockey and lacrosse for Los Al but, "I definitely like hockey more," he says. "I think it's the coolest sport in the world."

His future aspirations revolved around being not on the ice but in the sky. He hopes to go to Arizona State after he graduates in 2021 and enter the school's aviation program with dreams of becoming a commercial pilot.

In the meantime, he is at Honda Center about two dozen times a season and is optimistic about the Ducks team he watched down the Coyotes 2-1 on Opening Night.

"I think we have the best prospects in the NHL right now," he says. "I just think how the young guys are looking with our veterans and a new coach, and how we did in the preseason, we look like a whole different team. I think it's going to be a really good season."

Katie Hawley
It was something out of a fairy tale when Katie experienced her Opening Night as 21st Duck in 2017. Katie has been battling cancer since the age of 9, enduring dozens of procedures and treatments over the past decade. In addition to her own battle, she has worked with the Jessie Rees Foundation - whose motto is to "never ever give up" - along with her work with other non-profits. When Katie's cancer returned at the age of 17, her story reached Ducks forward Rickard Rakell, who surprised her one day (when she was working at the Jessie Rees Foundation) with the invitation to be that year's 21st Duck.  

Opening Night unfolded like a dream, starting with Rakell and Corey Perry carefully guiding Katie out to center ice for player introductions. "I was terrified of falling, because I kept falling during practice," recalled Hawley last Thursday at Honda Center. "I was like, 'You two better not drop me.' But I had two brick walls next to me, so I wasn't going down.

"When I was out there, I don't even remember all the people. I really remember seeing all the players and they were all smiling and excited about starting the season again."

Katie had told both Rakell and Perry they had better score that night, and Perry got two goals, both assisted by Rakell. It was late in the third period of a tie game when the amazing became surreal. Rakell scored the go-ahead goal off an Andrew Cogliano feed with just 3 1/2 minutes left in an eventual win over Arizona, with TV cameras capturing Katie pointing to herself and shouting, "THAT WAS FOR ME!"

Video: Katie Hawley reacts to Rickard Rakell's game-winner

"It was so insane," says Katie. "I feel like Cogliano had an open shot, but he turned the opposite way of the goal and gave the puck to Rickard. I think he did that on purpose because he knew Ricky wanted that goal for me. I don't know. I talked to Andrew after the game, and he gave me a little wink. It was so crazy."

Katie can't help but reminisce about that incredible night whenever she returns to Honda Center. "I feel like we all do," she says. "I was talking to the cameramen, and they were saying, 'I still talk to people about that Opening Night and how insane that was.' I still have moments when I go back and just think, How did that happen? That was just such an incredible night and it was just a fairytale. It was a dream come true for everybody. It was so amazing."

Katie is now a 19-year-old sophomore at Baylor University in Texas, but her return to campus this semester was delayed by a diagnosis over the summer that small amounts of cancer had returned in her lungs and back. "This time around is more minor," she says. "They told me five years ago they wouldn't have been able to see the spot in my body, that's how much the technology of the scans has advanced."

Katie is undergoing treatment that is ongoing, with doctors determining what more might be required down the road. "We thought it was a good idea to maybe get my health back in order and do treatment for a semester," said Katie, who is taking a couple of online classes for Baylor credit and hopes to return to school in January.  

"That's what I'm holding onto, knowing I will go back to that," she says. "It's hard. There are good days and bad days. There are days where I'm like, 'Okay, it's just a couple months of your life and then you go back to normal for a little bit.' But there are days where I get frustrated, like when I'm in the hospital. It's a long process, but my faith in God is what keeps me strong. And I have an amazing boyfriend, Andrew, who is kind of new in my life, and he has been amazing as well."

Her experience as 21st Duck is something that continues to live on through the relationships she's formed. "When I come back here, I run to go hug everybody I see," she says. "I'm just so excited to see them again. It's such a 'home' feeling for me being here. Meeting Rickard and having that relationship still, he texts me occasionally to see how I'm feeling. It's just kind of meeting all those people and having that family here is so inspiring."

Michael Lu  
Michael's hockey ability is hindered by his Parkinson's Disease, but that doesn't stop him from playing the game he loves. He routinely joins members of the Ducks staff in their weekly Thursday morning pickup games at The Rinks Anaheim Ice. "Those guys are so fun to play with and their skating ability is so good," he says. "And the way they include me to play has been great."

A year ago Michael was on the ice when he was invited to be the 21st Duck by captain Ryan Getzlaf, which included joining the team for a practice and ultimately Opening Night. He actually crumbled to the ice after hearing the news, calling it, "Probably one of the best falls of my life, for good reason."

He skated smoothly out to center ice during the home opener to join the team for introductions as part of an incredible night, something he was reliving in his mind on Thursday evening. "Being down on that ice, I was definitely having flashbacks," he said. "It was amazing. And seeing all the fan festivities on the Orange Carpet brought back memories of that, walking between all the people."

Video: DET@ANA: Michael Lu is introduced as the 21st Duck

The Ducks beat Detroit that night in a shootout and "Being in the locker room after the game that night was also amazing," Lu said. "There were so many components to making that experience so memorable for me. That night, it was just getting to talk to the players on a more personal level. The way they took their time to get to know me, taking time out of their day to care about how I was doing and what I was up to, you can't put that experience into words."

Lu, who lives in West Covina, is in the second year of a graduate program in school psychology at Azusa Pacific and spends his days interning at La Vista/La Sierra High Schools in Fullerton. His Parkinson's is something he calls a "journey" not a battle.

And his experience as 21st Duck continued well beyond that Opening Night a year ago. Later in the season he flew out to New York to meet up with the Ducks on the road, a trip that included skating at Rockefeller Center, visiting the Empire State building and meeting fellow Parkinson's sufferer Michael J. Fox. "He was a funny guy," Lu says, "and he gave me a positive outlook on having Parkinson's as well."

Lu also got to meet Ducks legends Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya and Steve Rucchin during Kariya's jersey retirement night, and he fondly recalls playing pond hockey with Ducks staffers up at Mammoth Mountain last winter.

"The experiences have just continued to roll on," he says, "and it's all just been so amazing."

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