Working in the sports industry it is very tough to not ride the emotional rollercoaster that comes along with each new day, whether on or off the ice.
Friday, the day after a tough loss, could have been a very low day on both accounts. However, Connor Johnson and his wish through the Make-A-Wish Foundation made it a great day…a day that helps keep all things in perspective.
Connor is a 13-year-old young man who has been battling non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Connor is a big Canes fan and had expressed to the Make-A-Wish Foundation (MAW) that his wish would be to have the ultimate Canes playroom. The MAW team said they would handle the electronic upgrade of the room if we could help with the Canes items. Of course, we said no problem.
However, one of the biggest challenges was getting Connor out of the house so the room could be transformed. I proposed bringing Connor to practice to enjoy the team up close and personal. It worked out perfectly as Connor’s parents and MAW did not tell Connor that the practice was part of his wish.
He came to practice Friday thinking that he would get to see practice and maybe meet one or two players. Little did he know that he would watch a lot of practice from the bench and then be invited in the locker room. In the locker room he sat in Captain Brind’Amour’s stall (per Eric Staal’s suggestion) and chatted with many of the Canes players.
Two of his favorite players, Justin Williams and Matt Cullen, then asked him to join them for lunch in the player’s lounge (after playing him in ping pong of course). Once the lunch was over, Justin pulled out NHL 2K9 and asked if he and Matt could come to Connor’s house to play Wii with him.
Of course Connor said yes (as he seemed to try to hide his excitement). We followed Connor in a caravan to his house (unbeknownst to him that he had a new playroom waiting). Upon arriving, Connor quickly ran upstairs to put away the game sticks that Matt and Justin had given him. We all tried to catch up as he walked into the new game room so we could see the look of surprise that was about to happen. There was a large contigent of volunteers, MAW staff and media…but there also a fully transformed room that included a new flat screen HDTV, surround sound, a new soda bar, Canes items including a replica Eric Staal ’08 All-Star jersey (Framed nicely and at no cost thanks to Great Frame-Up in Brier Creek).
Connor quickly challenged Matt and Justin to a game of NHL 2K9 on his Wii. Matt and Justin played together as Pittsburgh (Connor’s pick for them) as Connor played with his Carolina Hurricanes. None had played the game, but Connor was obviously a little more familiar with the Wii as he quickly jumped out to a 5-0 lead. The real Matt Cullen was not too upset though as virtual Matt Cullen (controlled by Connor) scored two of the goals. Matt called it “bittersweet”, but was not overly pleased with the moustache the game gave him.
Matt and Justin finally got the hang of the game and made it respectable, scoring two third period goals.
However, it was Connor’s day and he was a true winner. I had the pleasure of spending about five hours with Connor and he is an amazing young man who is intelligent and has a quick wit (much like Williams, Cullen and Whitney…three of his favorites) and many talents (he is an accomplished chef and guitar player).
Connor has definitely had his ups and downs as just two years ago he did not have the long locks that he happily wears today. A lot of his life changed since his diagnosis as he is now home-schooled and has to worry about big hits during hockey games. Yet, he handles it all with a great outlook. If he doesn’t play in the NHL, he will be a chef in a great restaurant as he is now a talented cook…he might even own a sushi restaurant since that is his specialty. Cooking is something he said he learned after watching hours of the Food Network while in the hospital.
It is tough to not ride that rollercoaster and think about all of the bad things Connor went through the last few years…but it awesome to think about how much fun he had today.
Connor and 20 of his closest friends and family will be attending the game Saturday night on the Canes. If you are attending, make sure you stay in your seats during the second intermission so you see the video of his day. If you miss it, there should be a longer version on-line next week.
Some of the highlights of the day not noted above include:
- Connor getting a “mock” interview in the media room from Canes N&O beat reporter Chip Alexander, who took the time to stay with us all day.
- Ray Whitney trying to squirt Connor with water during practice
- Connor having the opportunity the chat with Cam about how things have changed since Connor shaved Cam’s head 2 years ago for a St. Baldrick’s fundraiser
- Connor telling Chad LaRose that he likes the way Chad hustles…Connor told Chad he tries to emulate his style when he plays. Chad told Connor “if there wasn’t a puck out there, I would be the best player on the ice”
- Connor’s face when Rod Brind’Amour was walking toward his locker stall...a stall that was currently occupied by Connor
- Connor telling me about his stick with five different colors of tape on it. I asked him about our players sticks and he said they were boring. I asked, “so boring you would not want one of them”…he said, “I didn’t say that”.
- Finally, to prove that our players are great guys even when things are not planned, I found out that Connor had a relationship with Mike Commodore during his tenure here. Commodore lived close to Connor and visited him in the hospital when he was first diagnosed. Mike went as far as to give Connor one of his home red jerseys from the 05-06 Cup season…one of only four that Mike got to keep.