It seemed fitting that the biggest hockey event in the history of the Columbus Blue Jackets
-- reaching the Stanley Cup Playoffs -- would feature their most courageous fan.
That was 19-year-old Ryan Salmons, who, after receiving his wish of witnessing his Blue Jackets play their first two playoff games at Nationwide Arena, would succumb to cancer less than two weeks later on May 1.
And while Salmons no longer is with us physically, his spirit lives on in everyone that was touched by his story of inspiration and determination in an incredible year-long fight against Alveolar Rhabdomyosarcoma -- a terminal cancer that invaded muscle tissue throughout his body.
"Even today, I cannot even comprehend the magnitude of Ryan and what he meant to the community and the Blue Jackets," Ryan's father, Brad Salmons, told NHL.com. "I was so busy helping Ryan that I just never saw the impact he was having. I mean, I tell people who want to help that sometimes I just want to sit in the corner and grieve, but I can't because that's not what Ryan would want."
He's right. When NHL.com was on the scene for the historic opening two playoff games in Columbus last spring, the Salmons family graciously opened their home to us for an exclusive interview with Ryan.
"When the doctors diagnosed me, my first thoughts were, 'I can't have cancer, I'm an 18-year-old kid who is physically fit,' " Salmons told NHL.com in a one-on-one interview last April at his Grove City home. "I've been lifting weights for a year and a half. I've been staying on top of my physical stuff so there's no way I can have cancer."
It was April 2008 when Salmons was diagnosed with his terminal disease. His medical regimen each day began with four rounds of pills and four injections of the steroid Decadron before the administration of platelets and blood. He swallowed approximately 115-117 pills each week, but never turned away a visitor.
"Ryan made a significant impact on the lives of many people in his 19 years and he will be missed by all of us at the Blue Jackets," Columbus General Manager Scott Howson said. "Not only did we lose a fan, but we lost a friend."
As such, the Blue Jackets and the team's charitable foundation recognized the NHL's Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Month with a special night dedicated in Ryan's memory. In their meeting with the Los Angeles Kings
on Oct. 17, the Blue Jackets will have the jersey worn by Ryan at the first two home playoff games last season draped over their bench in his honor.
"It was always Ryan's relationship with the players, not mine, but I have to say I feel closer to Ryan at the arena than anywhere else, so it's so easy to go in there and it'll be a special night," Brad Salmons said. "The jersey that they'll use has a gold (pediatric cancer awareness) ribbon on it, an NHL logo pin given to him by (Commissioner) Gary Bettman and a Stanley Cup pin given to him by an usher at Columbus' first playoff game last year."
When Howson and the Blue Jackets Foundation learned of Salmons' condition and his fight, they made it a point to sign him for the stretch run last season. The one-day contract to the former high school hockey player given him by Howson included a $3 signing bonus and an incentive clause of two tickets to the Jackets' first home playoff game, should they qualify. That was made official April 8 when the Jackets scored a 4-3 shootout decision against the Chicago Blackhawks
Blue Jackets forward Jason Chimera
, a frequent visitor of Salmons during his ordeal, actually contacted his good friend 10 minutes after the club officially had qualified with the win against Chicago that night.
"The spirit that the team gave him to continue to push on kept his spirits up as he went through the cancer treatments the last 6-to-9 months," Brad Salmons, said. "I think he helped push the players and the players, in turn, pushed him."
The Blue Jackets Foundation, a charity that includes pediatric cancer research and treatment, sold over 100 Salmons No. 3 replica jerseys and had Reebok produce No. 3 Salmons T-shirts, the same as they do for actual NHL players.
Ryan kept telling his father that there was one more thing he was hanging on for despite the fact doctors gave him 4-to-6 weeks to live in March -- some two months before his death.
Perhaps his response to the question, "What keeps you going?" told the real story.
"I'm in a window that should be closed, but I'm still fighting," he said at the time. "Hey, there're still enjoyable things to do. Why turn over and give up when you can go out and enjoy life. I'll never know how many people I've touched or have read my story but it's very neat to have people come up and introduce themselves and say what a big inspiration I am. They always tell me to keep fighting and that's awesome. Those things are what keep me happy and smiling and moving along."
Since his death, Brad Salmons has worked closely with the Blue Jackets Foundation and Howson's wife, Antoinette, to establish a foundation in Ryan's memory. The inaugural Ryan Salmons Memorial Golf Outing on July 24, which raised $12,000, was the first of what surely will be a number of events held each year that will help ensure families battling pediatric cancer and who can't afford a night out to enjoy a sporting event, can.
"There have been people walking up to me and telling me how Ryan's story has changed their lives and others will just come up and hug me and say, because of Ryan, my son is now playing hockey. And many of the Columbus players still text and call to see how I'm doing. I can't tell you how much the Blue Jackets have meant to me through all this."
-- Brad Salmons
"Ryan and I constantly spoke about the doctors doing the doctor stuff, and I (Brad) would work on the spirit stuff," Brad Salmons said. "Ryan's legacy to the other kids will be the spirit stuff. We will not be a foundation for Disney trips or wishes, but an evening away at home without worry of the financial burden. Clippers (minor-league baseball), Blue Jackets, OSU sports, etc. -- if a family enjoys the zoo, we will try to make it happen for the kids."
Ryan's foundation currently includes 22-24 volunteers working concessions and selling shirts and jerseys to help raise money for the foundation. In addition to the annual golf outing that will take place, Brad Salmons noted a blood drive in Ryan's name set to take place in December and a bowling tournament on a Sunday afternoon in February.
"There have been people walking up to me and telling me how Ryan's story has changed their lives and others will just come up and hug me and say, because of Ryan, my son is now playing hockey," an emotional Brad Salmons said. "And many of the Columbus players still text and call to see how I'm doing. I can't tell you how much the Blue Jackets have meant to me through all this."
Having the opportunity to spend so much time with his father was something Ryan was most happy about in his final few weeks.
"This last year has been amazing and phenomenal for me and my dad," said Salmons, 11 days before his passing. "It's brought us together; we're inseparable. Granted, we're not doing the things that a father and son would normally do, like play a round of golf or go on vacation, but this last year has been one of the better years of our lives just because how close we are."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com