Brandon Bloom couldn't stop smiling once he saw his stall in the New York Islanders locker room stall. A freshly-pressed blue jersey with "Bloom" and the number one stitched onto the back, junior sized blue and orange gloves and an Islanders helmet hung in his spot, a mere six feet away from John Tavares. The eight-year-old beamed as he laced up his skates with his father's help.
"I almost started crying when I saw that he had his own little spot in the locker room with the boys, that really touched me," Brandon's father Brian said. "For Brandon to have a jersey and everything is amazing. He's going to talk about it forever."
Brandon has had a lot of hard days since being diagnosed with stage-4 non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma in April 2016. The eight-year-old has endured daily chemotherapy treatments, hospital stays, spinal taps and a whole gauntlet of procedures.
But Tuesday was a good day for Brandon. The life-long Islanders fan lived out his dream of being a Islander, as the team invited him to be an Islander For A Day, partnering with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society to give him an unforgettable experience.
"I can see the smile across the ice on his face," Brian said watching his son sit on the bench during the team's practice. "He really loves it and I know he'll never forget it."
Head Coach Doug Weight let Brandon into the player's sanctuary to attend a pre-practice meeting before the team's skate. Andrew Ladd cut down a Mathew Barzal stick to Brandon's size and taped it up for him in the locker room. Brandon also got to have breakfast with his favorite player, Josh Bailey, in the player's lounge.
When Bloom came out onto the ice, the Islanders stopped their practice and tapped their sticks. Weight skated him across the ice and sat him on the bench for a front row seat to Tuesday's skate, during which every Islander came up and gave him a fist bump and said hello.
"His eyes were wide for the last three and a half hours," Weight said. "We have good kids on our team. They loved it."
To get the full experience of being an Islander for a Day meant hitting the ice. Lymphoma has robbed Brandon of a hockey career for now, but on Tuesday he got to pass and shoot pucks with John Tavares and Nick Leddy. The team made sure Brandon lived out a lifelong dream of scoring a goal, as Scott Mayfield helped him skate in and beat Thomas Greiss five-hole.
"I thought I would be so scared, but I had a lot of fun," Brandon said in his post-practice media scrum. "It was like a dream come true."
Anthony Beauvillier helped him un-tie his skates after practice and clean up his locker stall. It was the second time they'd met, as Beauvillier, Shane Prince and Adam Pelech visited Brandon during the Islanders hospital visits last season. Brandon's smile stuck with Beauvillier, who was happy to see him out of the hospital and with a full head of blonde hair.
"It's the same smile," Beauvillier said. "Just sitting on the bench you could just tell he was happy to be here. It's something that's going to stay in my mind for a while."
Bailey has also met Brandon a few times and has been a bright light in his recovery. The Islanders' forward met Brandon after last season's home opener, signed a jersey for him and gave him the game puck after scoring the game-winning goal. That's how Bailey became Brandon's favorite player and the puck still sits on his dresser. He's got a second puck to pair with it now, as the team taped up a "first-goal" puck after his goal on Greiss.
"I had the chance to meet the Bloom family a while ago and they are really quality people who are going through a tough time," Bailey said. "You can see it on Brandon's face, he keeps fighting and seems like he's in good spirits. I'm happy we could give him and the family a nice day here."
His father knows what a day like Tuesday can do for his son.
"To keep him happy is a big thing for me to stay positive and keeping him on a positive path is good for his recovery," Brian said. "It's amazing that we get to come here and Brandon gets to experience this."
It's been a year and a half since the Blooms received the gut-wrenching diagnosis. They say Brandon has kept the family's spirits up.
"He's been positive the whole time. There's been days where he's had spinal taps, he's been knocked out and then three or four hours later he's running around," Brian said. "People say I don't know how you do it, but he's the one that's getting us through this."
That fighting spirit wasn't lost on the Islanders, who gave him an ovation when he came into the locker room.
"He's way stronger than we are," Beauvillier said. "He battles for his life."
Brandon has got nearly a year left of treatment before being re-evaluated. There's been some improvements - the mass in his chest is gone - but there's still a ways to go and there will still be tough days of treatment ahead.
But not Tuesday. Not when he's got his favorite hockey team giving him a hug after his first goal.