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An honorary Oiler

by Meg Tilley / Edmonton Oilers

It wasn’t your typical scene at the Rexall Place ticket entrance. There weren’t any long line-ups that graced the exterior of the building, nor were there mass groups of people cramped into what could be considered a cramped vestibule on a game night.

Instead, a small group of seven individuals huddled together in the rather spacious entryway, quietly exchanging words. Sharply dressed in Orange, white and blue, a young boy wearing a McDavid jersey was singled out.

“This is Kohen,” said Aissa Briones, Wish Program Manager for Make-A-Wish Northern Alberta.

Kohen Flett quickly extended his arm from the side of his body for a delicate handshake as a soft “Hello” followed. As introductions continued down the line, he remained in his spot, swaying back and forth, fidgeting with the hem of his jersey, without moving far from his post.

“Hi Kohen, my name is Emma,” said Emma Brook, Community Partnership Coordinator for the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation (EOCF).

“Today, you are going to be an honorary Oiler.”

A smile slowly spread across the young man’s face as he started to realize that his wish was going to come true, in the most unexpected way.

***

“He had no idea, he thought he was going to a doctors appointment,” said Kohen’s mom Kayla. “When he saw the limo, that’s when we told him he was going to Rexall Place.”

Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club

Eight-year-old Kohen, who wished for nothing more than a simple meet-and-greet with the Edmonton Oilers, wasn’t told what was in store — he was about to get more than he bargained for.

His mind was in overdrive as he processed the information, understanding that the day he prepared for, which was supposed to be full of doctor appointments, was no longer happening.

“He was kind of asking me, ‘Why are we here?’” said Kohen’s grandpa, Doug.

“I told him, ‘Well son, maybe it’s an MRI,’ but he doesn’t want to go for his MRI again. It was tough because he was just getting frustrated, asking why we’re here.

“He’s kind of a home kid where he has practice and hockey — he doesn’t want to miss those things. We kept it a secret and just kept telling him this and that. Kind of putting it aside until this morning. When he saw the limousine and he kind of started to slowly put two and two together — then with the jersey — I think he knew. But he didn’t know that he was actually going to be skating with them.”

As Kohen and his family made their way to the front entrance of the Oilers change room, you could tell his young mind was racing. With his younger brother Ryker enthusiastically bouncing alongside him, Kohen was asked whom he was most excited to meet.

If the jersey he wore wasn’t a dead giveaway, his quick-like-a-cat response was. Without hesitation Kohen answered, “McDavid.”

***

The doors to the Oilers change room were wide open, as Kohen and his family approached. Peering down the hallway, his eyes widened ever so slightly as he took in the lit passageway that would soon lead him to his new teammates.

Kohen makes his honourary Oilers experience official. Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.

But first, business had to be tended to. Stepping across the locker-room threshold, Kohen headed down the narrow corridor that was tucked just inside the entryway, which led to a small office at the end.

There, Kohen was welcomed in by Bill Scott, the Oilers Assistant General Manager. Entering the room, Scott welcomed the soon-to-be Oiler with a handshake and a smile. As Kohen shyly reciprocated the gesture, Scott proceeded to present him with the official paperwork that would set a chain of events in motion.

With pen in hand, Kohen didn’t hesitate. Carefully printing five letters, he looked up and watched as Scott added his own John Hancock to the dotted line, officially welcoming Kohen as the newest Oiler.

***

Kohen’s magical day wouldn’t have been if not for Make-A-Wish Northern Alberta. The Foundation, which grants wishes to children, ages 3-17, living with life-threatening medical conditions, partnered with the EOCF to plan Kohen’s wish.

“Our goal, really, is to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy,” said Sophia Birchall, Communications and Medical Outreach Coordinator for MAW.

When Kohen was 15 months old, his grandmother, Dolores, noticed some rather unusual behaviour with his left eye.

Connor McDavid shows Kohen some puck-handling moves. Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.

“[It] was moving kind of quickly, from side to side,” said Kayla. “You couldn’t notice it from afar but when you look really close you could see it.”

Driving from their home in High Prairie, Alta., Kohen was brought to the emergency room at Stollery Children’s Hospital where he was admitted right away.

After a CAT scan was unable to provide answers, doctors proceeded with an MRI hoping it would be able to give them a little more insight as to what could be causing his left eye to rapidly shift.

“It [took] a couple of days, but [when] the MRI showed up, it showed he had a brain tumour,” said Kayla.

Located on Kohen’s optic pathways, right where they crossover, was what doctors would eventually diagnose as a low-grade (slow-growing) glioma.

“They did a biopsy the next day to see if it was cancerous or benign and if it was quickly growing and it was benign,” said Kayla. “But the place of where the tumour is…if they were to try and remove it then there’s a good chance he wouldn’t make it out of the surgery or he would go blind.”

Instead, Kohen received 70 rounds of chemotherapy to see if it would have any affect and reduce the size of the tumour. After 70 weeks of treatment, one round per week, the tumour remained unchanged.

“They thought that maybe the chemo would make it shrink but it didn’t, it just stayed the same,” said Kohen’s mom. “So he has to get an MRI for pretty much the rest of his life because he still has it. He’ll live with it, so they have to keep checking to make sure it’s not grown or anything.”

***

Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan introduces Kohen, right, to his new teammates while his brother Ryker stood by his side for support. Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.

With the paperwork signed, Kohen was given a tour of his new digs, getting the VIP treatment with a backstage tour of Rexall Place. Exploring the visiting hockey team change room, checking out the game day nets, poking around the rink’s Zamboni’s and getting the chance to even explore the Oil Kings locker room.

He was making sure he took it all in. As Kohen made his way back to the change room entrance, Kohen was welcomed to the rink by a familiar face, Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan.

It was suddenly all too real as the smile on Kohen’s face got bigger and bigger, following his new bench boss down the ramp, into the heart of the Oilers locker room. With little brother Ryker by his side for support, McLellan quieted the team to introduce them to their newest member.

The Oilers’ stalls sit side-by-side, surrounding Kohen and his brother in a U-shape formation. As all eyes fell on him, Kohen’s eyes quickly began scanning the room until they came to rest on an empty stall that sat in the back corner.

Upon closer inspection, the nameplate for the missing player read: FLETT. As introductions came to a close, Kohen was guided towards his new stall where he would find his very own Oilers gear and meet his new locker neighbour: Connor McDavid.

***

“We first met Kohen when he was referred to us,” said Birchall. “We met with him and asked him what his one true wish was, and his wish was to be an Edmonton Oiler for a day.”

He knew right from the start what he wanted.

Kohen walks out of the Oilers changeroom with new pal Taylor Hall. Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.

“We always ask kids for three wishes, just in case we’re not able to grant their number one wish. His number one wish, right from the get-go, was Edmonton Oilers,” she said.

The wish is fitting for Kohen. A left-winger on his High Prairie Minor Hockey team, Kohen is immersed in the world of hockey. With his brother suiting up as either the goalie or a defenceman each game, and Grandpa Doug as coach, their world is completely entrenched with hockey.

“We do well,” said Doug. “We pretty much make up our own game with other teams, but you can’t always win…. You’ve got to take a loss, and no matter what, I tell my kids, win or lose guys, as long as you play and play your heart out, and the most important thing — have fun. That’s the main thing.”

For Kayla, it still surprises her how much her son is engrossed in the sport, because when they first got the OK from the doctor and put him on skates, Kohen wanted nothing to do with it.

“We got the helmet — we got everything — put him on the ice and he didn’t like it. He hated it, he hated hockey,” she said.

It’s baffling to think that this impassioned kid — the same one who walked out of the Oilers change room side-by-side with new pal Taylor Hall, decked out head-to-toe looking like Hall’s Mini-Me — once loathed the sport he’s grown to love so much.

“Once he started watching the Oilers was when he started liking it,” said Kayla. “Seeing the Oilers play is what got him to actually like hockey. So now he’s obsessed with [it], he plays hockey as soon as he’s home from school, he does his homework and then he goes downstairs and plays hockey downstairs the whole day.”

Now, out on the ice with the team that instilled in him a devotion to hockey, Kohen was showing off his backhand shots on net and behind the back passes — more than what one would expect from an eight-year-old.

“This has been so special for him, I don’t think anyone really expected that he would get a chance to actually skate on the ice where the Oilers play,” said Birchall.

“I think, in the beginning, he was a little bit overwhelmed, a little start-struck, but I think going and meeting all his teammates has really made him feel comfortable and [feel] like a member of the team.”

***

Darnell Nurse engages in a some light rough-housing with Kohen. Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.

As Kohen took a seat in his stall the reporters and cameras swarmed the young player. Media scrums are a familiar sighting often seen in the Oilers change room after a game, but not a scenario the young Oiler was accustomed to. At first, his face, exhibiting rosy cheeks from a hard worked practice, reflected hesitation, what now?

But his misgivings were quickly pushed to the side as Oilers defenceman Darnell Nurse sat down beside him for moral support. As Kohen cautiously answered each question that was directed his way, a smile suddenly spread across his face, followed by an eruption of laughter.

“Have you fought before?” asked Nurse, pulling Kohen’s attention away from the crowd that surrounded them.

“No,” answered Kohen, giggling as he recalled the gentle rough housing the two engaged in out on the ice earlier.

“Well, you looked like a vet out there,” Nurse replied.

***

“For him it’s kind of like a shocker to start,” said Doug, describing his grandson’s reaction when the family first arrived at Rexall Place.

“When we walked into the dressing room, he was just totally overwhelmed I guess you could say. He’s just amazed at what goes on, what hockey players do, how things look as we’re walking down. I know he was a little bit shy at the start but I think he really opened up when the guys were talking to him in the dressing room [and] helping him out.”

It was a secret that led to, as Kohen firmly states, “The best day of my life.” But what may have come as a surprise to some is the impact his wish left on the team.

“It was a special day for him and really a special day for us,” said McLellan.

Photo by Andy Devlin / Edmonton Oilers Hockey Club.

“Kohen is a young fella’ that had his wish or dream come true today. He epitomizes, really, what a perfect Oiler is, so we were happy to sign him to a contract. He’s tough, he’s got courage, he’s resilient, he inspires others and I think he had that effect on our group today. We had a pretty upbeat practice after a loss and I would say he played a big part in it.”

Kohen did for the Oilers what they were supposed to do — and did — for him.

“It was great,” said Oilers forward Matt Hendricks. “He brightened our day too. He’s been through a lot and some days, the dog days of the season, you’re coming into practice, bodies are beat up and a little weary, and you see what he’s gone through throughout his short life — eight years old — we’re happy he came out today, it was a lot of fun.”

A big dream for a small boy turned into a day he never imagined.

“Everyone went above and beyond for him today, it was amazing,” said Kayla.

Leaving the locker room with nothing but a smile, some signed memorabilia from the day and sporting some new gear, Kohen may have arrived an ordinary hockey player, but he left as a honorary Oiler. And once you’re an Oiler, you’re always an Oiler.

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