TORONTO -- Mitchell Marner played with a heavy heart on Monday after learning of the death of 7-year-old Hayden Foulon on Sunday.
"It's hard to put into words our relationship," the Toronto Maple Leafs forward said after a 4-3 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Scotiabank Arena. "She was a special friend to me. By the end of it, it really felt like her family was a part of my family."
Hayden was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia when she was 22 months old. Hayden met Marner, then a forward for London of the Ontario Hockey League, when he toured the Children's Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre in 2015 with teammate and current Arizona Coyotes forward Christian Dvorak.
"Last night we lost our little fighter Hayden," Marner tweeted Monday. "It breaks my heart to know I'll never be able to see you again. How you fought your battles always inspired me, you were my hero. I know you'll be watching me from up above. I'll miss you."
Marner stayed in touch with Hayden and her family after joining the Maple Leafs in 2016-17 and hosted her at games over the past few years. He said he intends to continue his relationship with Hayden's family.
"Going forward, her family will still mean a lot to me," he said. "I'll still get them down here as much as we can and talk to them and see how much I can help throughout this process."
Marner said that ever since he met Hayden, he was impressed by the courage and bravery she constantly displayed.
"I think anyone who got to know Hayden or got to see her, you always left with a smile on your face," Marner said. "She meant a lot to the people around her, and it's something that's very unfortunate that happened. That's why we do the things we do, try to raise money to try and stop these things and try to help people live out their full life. She was a battler, and she'll always be remembered by me."
After the first period Monday, Marner paid tribute to Hayden during a Sportsnet interview, saying, "She'll never be forgotten. .... This year is going to be for her."