Stelter family's impact on the hockey community

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Hockey Fights Cancer, the NHL will be sharing stories of those in the hockey world impacted by the disease on the 25th of each month all season long. Today, the story of Mike Stelter and his son, Edmonton Oilers superfan Ben Stelter.

EDMONTON -- It’s almost impossible to comprehend what the Stelter family has been through.

It’s nearly as impossible to calculate the impact they have had on the fight against cancer.

Ben Stelter became an inspiration for Connor McDavid, the Edmonton Oilers and the entire hockey community while he battled glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer.

His postgame victory phrase of “Play 'La Bamba,' baby,” became a rallying cry for Oilers fans everywhere. Four months after his death on Aug. 9, 2022, at the age of 6, the Ben Stelter Foundation was formed with a focus on providing magical experiences for kids with cancer, providing needed medical equipment at home, and supporting medical research.

The fight wasn’t over.

In March 2023, Ben’s dad, Mike, started to feel intense back pain with some “tingling down my leg.”

“I went to the doctor," Mike Stelter said. "It seemed like it was possibly a slipped disk or something down my back, but every treatment we were trying was either not helping or making it worse. I finally had an MRI done and that’s when they realized a tumor was forming on my spine.”

He was diagnosed with sarcoma. To combat the cancer, Stelter needed to undergo proton therapy, a more accurate way of combating cancer cells in the body.

But there was a problem -- that treatment was not available anywhere in Canada. In fact, he would need to travel to the Roberts Proton Therapy Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia -- more than 2,000 miles away – to fight his cancer. He would need to go for eight weeks, leaving behind his wife, Lea, and daughters Dylan and Emmy.

“Being separated from the family during that time was incredibly hard,” Stelter said. “The girls were in school, we couldn’t pull them out of school for a couple of months, that would be so hard to do for them and unfair for them. But it was tough.

"The treatment itself was easy and painless, I was in and out in about 30 minutes every day. I didn’t feel anything while treatment was happening, it was easy, but getting there and going through all of that on your own, was hard.”

Even before he was diagnosed, Mike, through Ben’s foundation, had been working on the idea of investing in a proton therapy clinic in Edmonton, which would be the first of its kind in Canada. Even before it had immediately impacted him, he was working for a way to make it easier on others.

“We were so fortunate with the support of the community we were able to make it work to go down for treatment,” Mike Stelter said. “There are so many families where that’s the only option for them to go for treatment, out of country in the United States and they’re unable to go, and that’s incredibly unfair.

“After that, we are even more driven to bring proton therapy to Canada, knowing that families [having] to go through this is incredibly unfair and the amount of families that we’ve met since then where they said they had to travel to the United States for proton therapy or they know somebody that’s had to, is unbelievable. There is such a huge need for this treatment in Canada right now.”


Ashif Mawji, the chair of the Ben Stelter Foundation, said they would like to break ground on the new facility this year and hope to have it up and running in the first quarter of 2027.

“This is our No. 1 priority because proton therapy has been known to be the best treatment for pediatrics,” Mawji said. “It’s not just for adults. One of the things I didn’t know is that because kids are so resilient, if we get this treatment to them early enough, it can get rid of their cancer, so it is important. It can change a lot of lives, save a lot of lives.”

One of the biggest supporters of the Stelter family is McDavid. The Oilers captain became friends with Ben during his cancer battle and he along with entrepreneur Ashif Mawji, made a $100,000 donation on the day Ben’s foundation was formed.

When McDavid won the Hart Trophy, voted as the NHL's most valuable player, at the 2023 NHL Awards in Nashville, the Stelters surprised him by coming onstage to hand him the trophy.

During McDavid's speech, he referenced an inside joke he shared with TNT broadcaster Paul Bissonnette, which resulted in each of them pledging another $5,000 to Ben’s fund.

McDavid with Selter family at NHL Awards

And when the Oilers played in Philadelphia this season, McDavid visited Mike at the hospital.

“When I found out Mike was in Philadelphia getting treatment, we were there for a game, and it was great to see him while he was going through his proton therapy treatment,” McDavid said. “It was good to get a chance to see him, see how he was doing and seeing that facility he was at. It’s a state of-the-art facility there.

“As someone who cares about the family, it was good to go there and show him some support. Also, the proton therapy that he was doing is some pretty cutting-edge stuff and it’s something that I know the fund would love to bring to Edmonton and Canada and help as many people and families as we can.”

In March, McDavid and teammate Zach Hyman presented Stelter with a $25,000 donation from the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association to the Ben Stelter Foundation.

“As good as Connor is on the ice, he’s even better off the ice,” Mike said. “It’s pretty cool with everything with Ben, he helped out a ton and it wasn’t for show or anything like that, it was all pretty genuine.”

Leon Driasaitl with Ben Selter decal on helmet

McDavid still smiles when discussing his relationship with Ben Stelter.

“My bond with Ben formed over the Oilers, he was a huge Oilers fan and a big fan of mine,” McDavid said. “For me, every time I was around him, I felt so much joy and it brought me a lot of energy.

"Just his perspective on life, he was just a little boy, and he was going through this terrible situation. He went through it with a smile on his face, which certainly taught me a lesson in terms of what life means and things like that.”

With Mike back home, the Stelter family will continue to work on maintaining Ben’s legacy and help others going through similar struggles. Having completed proton therapy, Mike is feeling better and does MRI follow-ups to check on the prognosis of the treatment.

“We’re OK, now that Mike’s home, he’s starting to feel better,” Lea Stelter said. “He still has some effects from the medication and the treatment, it took a toll on his body and so we’re trying to get back into life. But this keeps us busy in a good way and our girls keep us very busy, which is lovely.”