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Cancer survivor thanks Kariya for support at Hall of Fame event

Fan meets 2017 honoree, shares story of his inspirational letter

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

TORONTO -- Her voice quivered as she stood in the Great Hall, holding a microphone in front of the Hockey Hall of Fame electees, surrounded by people at the Q&A Fan Forum on Saturday. She was nervous about sharing something so personal and private on such a big, public stage. But she had something to say to Paul Kariya.

"You told me if I could see it in my mind …" 

She paused.

"Sorry."

She cleared her throat.

"… believe it in my heart and commit to it with everything that I had, that it would happen. I had some rough times. I shouldn't be here, and I am. You inspired me."

 

[RELATED: Kariya back in spotlight at Hall of Fame festivities]

 

Michelle Blackburn had been a fan of Kariya's since 1998, early in his NHL career. She admired the speed and skill that led to 989 points (402 goals, 587 assists) in 989 games with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Colorado Avalanche, Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues, but also the character that made him a two-time winner of the Lady Byng Trophy for "sportsmanship and gentlemanly conduct combined with a high standard of playing ability."

"He wasn't a dirty player," she said. "It was about the game. And I loved that."

Blackburn was diagnosed with breast cancer Oct. 8, 2010, at age 28. Her wish: to see Kariya play one more time. But Kariya played his last NHL game April 10, 2010, and announced his retirement June 29, 2011, right after she finished treatment.

She went through a tough time early in 2014. Knowing what Kariya meant to her, David Pierce, her brother, reached out to a reporter who put him in touch with University of Denver hockey coach Jim Montgomery, who had played with Kariya at the University of Maine.

"I extended a branch and said, 'Hey, if there's any way you can connect the two, that would be great,' " Pierce said.

Pierce received a package from a "PTK" on St. Patrick's Day. Inside were pictures addressed to Blackburn's future children and a letter to Blackburn. Pierce held on to it but didn't read it.

When Blackburn had one of the worst days of her life, Pierce gave it to their mother, Christine Pierce, who flew from Toronto to Thunder Bay, Ontario, to deliver it. The letter was dated March 7, 2014. Handwritten. Blackburn wants to keep Kariya's exact words between them, but this says it all: She has a photo of the letter on her phone. She pulled it up, flashed it for a reporter and clutched it to her chest.

"The fact that he cared enough to send me that letter, just … I knew I needed to keep pushing and keep going," Blackburn said. "I did, and I'm here today."

Blackburn has raised more than $100,000 to fight breast cancer and helped start a project called The Butterfly Story. An artist paints symbols of strength on the bodies of survivors to cover the scars and bring beauty to life after cancer.

She takes medications each day, but feels good in what she calls "survivorship" and traveled for Kariya's induction. Reporters put her brother in touch with an official from the Hall of Fame, so there they were for the Q&A Fan Forum, second row, on the aisle, during Hockey Fights Cancer month.

Pierce raised his hand and took the mic about 35 minutes into the program. He told everyone how his sister had survived cancer and Kariya had taken the time to write her a heartfelt letter. He thanked Kariya and handed the mic to Blackburn, who wore a No. 9 Team Canada sweater from the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, where Kariya won gold.

"Thank you for taking the time for help me keep going," she concluded.

The room erupted in applause.

"We're really entertainers," Kariya said onstage. "But when you can touch somebody in their lives in whatever small way and help them, I mean, it's … Stories like that mean everything to me."

He stepped offstage and hugged her.

Who knows how many stories there are like that?

"That's the kind of story that doesn't always get out," said Martin Kariya, Paul's brother.

"A lot of the times it's behind the scenes, and to no disrespect of anyone else," said Steven Kariya, Paul's brother. "He goes about his way with charities, and like that example there, he'll just do it privately. I think he's never been one to look for attention in that respect. He just wants to do the right thing."

After the Q&A Fan Forum, Kariya came straight off the stage to meet Blackburn and Pierce. He received a book from Blackburn about The Butterfly Story, shook Pierce's hand and took photos with them.

Kariya has not skated since his last NHL game, but he will play in the Haggar Hockey Hall of Fame Legends Classic at Air Canada Centre on Sunday. Pierce got tickets. Blackburn's wish will come true.

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