The first time Danjela Belo saw her Pittsburgh Penguins in person was in Denver on Thursday. Naturally they won, 4-1 against the Colorado Avalanche. She's their good-luck charm, whether they know it or not.
Danjela, an 11-year-old brain cancer patient, has a history with the Penguins, and not just because she was in the hospital recovering from surgery when Pittsburgh advanced to the Stanley Cup Final last season.
The Belo family -- father Marc, mother Jennifer, Danjela and 8-year-old Nadija -- lives in Aurora, Colorado after a stint in Virginia, where Danjela was born. But Marc, a member of the Army National Guard stationed in Aurora, and Jennifer are from Pittsburgh, and one of the high-school sweethearts' early dates took place at a Penguins game against the Philadelphia Flyers. It was only fitting that Danjela and Nadija, who was born in Colorado, took a liking to the Penguins.
"The girls have been fans since birth," Jennifer said via email. "We trained them right!"
When Danjela complained of a terrible headache last May, the family took her to the emergency room. A 7-centimeter tumor was discovered on the left side of her brain. When it burst, causing pressure, she had to be airlifted to Children's Hospital in Aurora, Colorado, for emergency surgery.
As if that weren't enough cause for worry, Danjela was transported during the worst lightning storm Denver had in months, Jennifer said.
At the hospital, she said, the family somehow remained hopeful, even if the odds of survival weren't good.
"She was not expected to survive [the surgery]," Jennifer said. "But survive she did. She wasn't supposed to wake up until midweek, but she woke up in the CT scanner 30 minutes after surgery. She walked out of the hospital five days later with no neurological side effects.
"To look at her, you'd never know she had brain surgery."
Even after surgery, Danjela's ordeal was far from over. After aggressive treatment to disrupt the portion of the tumor that was too dangerous for doctors to remove, Danjela was given a 50 percent chance of survival. And that was only with eight months of aggressive chemotherapy treatments, radiation therapy, blood and plasma transfusions.
Through Hinotes Heroes, a charity founded by former Colorado Avalanche forward Dan Hinote, the Belo family got to attend the Penguins victory on Thursday. (Hinote, like Marc, has a military connection: In 1996, the Avalanche made him the first player from the U.S. Military Academy to be selected in the NHL Draft.)
Danjela held a sign that read, "I'm a brain cancer champion here to see my Stanley Cup champions." The Penguins tweeted the photo, which went viral.
Jennifer said Hinotes Heroes works closely with Children's Hospital Colorado and gave Danjela and family the tickets as a gift. Danjela and Nadija were thrilled to meet the Penguins players and take pictures with them. And though the Belos weren't rooting for the Avalanche, Colorado forward Gabriel Landeskog gave Danjela a stick signed by him and Blake Comeau.
Danjela must undergo routine MRIs for five more years before being declared cancer-free, but her test results have been encouraging. In November, an MRI showed no sign of cancer cells.
On Monday, Danjela will have another MRI, and the hope, as with each of them, is that it will again come up "NED" (no evidence of disease).
As for the game Thursday, there was never a doubt that the Penguins would win, at least among four fans who were there.
"Danjela said that she's their lucky charm," Jennifer said. "She was in the hospital recovering from brain surgery when they won the [conference final]. We told Danjela that they were going to win [the Cup] for her!"
-- with Stone Fisher