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Hockey Fights Cancer

Daughter's memory never far for Jeff Christian

Retired 21-year pro hockey veteran stays positive despite losing 11-year-old to cancer

by Jon Lane @JonLaneNHL / Staff Writer

Jeff Christian was a forward who played 1,311 games in 21 years of professional hockey at nearly every level in North America and Europe, including 18 NHL games with the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins and Phoenix Coyotes. He scored all of two goals in the NHL but was arrogant enough to always believe he was the best player on the ice, and tough enough to accrue a lifetime total of 3,134 penalty minutes.

Christian may have been hockey tough, but then came a day when he learned he wasn't nearly tough enough in the game of life, which took a cruel twist before Thanksgiving in 2012.  

Nearly three years earlier, Christian's 8-year-old daughter, Ryan, was like any child filled with youthful exuberance. She loved to paint and draw, play basketball, figure skate and excelled in school. She was also having headaches for about two weeks before she was discovered unresponsive. Doctors later determined she had a seizure caused by high blood pressure, and after a series of tests, Ryan was diagnosed with Stage IV adrenal cortical carcinoma, a rare cancer that forms on the outer layer of the adrenal glands and spreads throughout the body.

Jeff Christian's playing days were over. He had to help care for Ryan, and he was about to learn what "Ryan Tough" was all about. Ryan did eight rounds of the most intense chemotherapy one can endure -- at one point, she had 216 days' worth in a single calendar year -- but came through it with very few side effects. She stayed positive throughout, even going to treatments dressed as Jessie from "Toy Story" just to make the day fun.

Throughout the ordeal she never once asked, "Dad, why me?"

"I'm not an overly religious person, I would consider myself a spiritual person, but nobody prayed more to God than I did during those times," Christian said. "It really helped me sleep at night, when you say, 'Please God, give us one more day' or 'Thank you for today.' That's the attitude that we had. We would say to Ryan, 'We had a good day today, we're going to have another good one tomorrow.' You really learn to live in the moment and cherish every moment."

Jeff and his wife, Dorie, came up with a family slogan: "Strong, Healthy and Loved." They told Ryan again and again she was special and she was important, and that she was strong enough to fight cancer and defeat it.

"She truly believed it in her heart," Christian said. "Looking back now, that's what is the most heartbreaking thing, because she really believed us that she was going to beat this."

Then came the fall of 2012, when a phone call from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, informed Jeff and Dorie the tumors in Ryan's body were growing and nothing could be done to stop them. It was an awful day, but one when Jeff kept his perspective on the bright side.

"It was like, 'OK we hear you. We understand,'" Christian said. "As much as we believed that we were going to do it, that Ryan was going to be this miracle, that she would live, we always kind of knew this was an extreme longshot. But that day was, 'OK, she's still here.' You can walk down the hallway, back into her room, and we were watching 'Harry Potter.'"

The Christians immediately packed and moved from Kansas City to Columbus to be near Dorie's family and closer to Jeff's family in Hamilton, Ontario. Ryan spent the holiday season at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus.

"She actually had some good times," Christian said. "She had a great Christmas. She was still able to walk and breathe. But, still, you could see the disease was slowly taking its toll."

Ryan died on Jan. 24, 2013, 17 days after her 11th birthday. Her parents were present when the three-year fight of prayers, chemo and hope came to an end. Jeff was left to try and make sense of it all, reasoning that perhaps Ryan's plight would help him serve some higher purpose. He founded the Team Ryan Charitable Foundation for Pediatric Cancer Research, which has raised more than $200,000 for St. Jude and more than $23,000 for Nationwide Children's Hospital.

"That's what you hope," Christian said. "Any parent, I would say, who loses their child would tell you the same thing. We want Ryan to be remembered. This is the way to do it."

Christian has since worked his way back into professional hockey. A chance meeting with Penguins assistant general manager Bill Guerin, his former teammate in the Devils organization, led to a job as coach of Wheeling of the East Coast Hockey League. He has a healthy daughter, Tyler, born on March 3, 2015. Christian may never be whole again, but sharing stories and memories of Ryan has proven therapeutic. One of his favorites is how even with everything Ryan went through, it still broke her heart to see kids who lost their eyes to neuroblastoma. Ryan was especially proud of a birthmark she had on one of her bright blue eyes, each of which were donated after her death.

"It's our hope and our prayer that someone has Ryan's eyes," Christian said, "that some child who had neuroblastoma and lost an eye has Ryan's eye. That's the kind of person that Ryan was, always thinking about someone else. Even after we lost her, she still gave what he had."

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