CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Bobby DeFriest has always been known as a great teammate.
A former Jr. Panther, the 19-year-old forward spent the majority of his childhood on the ice at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, taking to the sport of hockey with such success that he eventually left the state to pursue his dream while competing in leagues around North America.
In 2015, he helped Team USA win the U-17 Five Nations Tournament in Arosa, Switzerland.
"He's unbelievable," said Austin McIlmurray, who played with DeFriest at the Selects Hockey Academy in Connecticut in 2014-15. "He's a team-first guy. It can be hard to be a team-first guy when you're one of the best players, and Bobby was always one of the best players on every team he played. He's truly a caring guy that always puts his teammates first."
But after a life of putting others first, DeFriest now finds himself suddenly in need of support.
After enduring several weeks of nagging headaches, a trip to the doctor in June led to a terrible discovery -- a cancerous tumor was growing in the pineal gland of his brain. This incredibly rare form of cancer represents just one percent of all brain tumors and can often be difficult to detect.
In the short time following the tumor's reveal, DeFriest was also diagnosed with hydrocephalus, which is a buildup of cerebrospinal fluid in the cavities of the brain. Not long after that, the tumor hemorrhaged, causing him to be airlifted to Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami for emergency surgery that resulted in him being placed in a medically-induced coma for three days.
However, like the challenges he's faced on the ice, DeFriest is taking this latest test in stride.
Since coming out of the coma, he is now eating, walking, talking and "doing better every day," according to his longtime girlfriend, Casey Guilmartin. Having already undergone the first of six rounds of chemotherapy he'll need to complete, Guilmartin said DeFriest has been "responding very well" to treatments and should be able to return home after his next round of chemo.
"We call him 'The Warrior' because, well, he's a warrior," Guilmartin said. "He's remaining positive throughout everything. When he came out of the coma he was like, 'I'm OK. We're going to be OK. This is just part of the process. It's going to be OK.' He's remained so positive. His attitude is helping not only him, but everyone around him giving him support and strength."
To Guilmartin's surprise, that support has come from all over the hockey community.
In an effort to ease the financial burden of DeFriest's mounting medical bills, Guilmartin started a fundraiser on Facebook and, with the help of another friend, a GoFundMe campaign. With an outpouring of support coming from every corner of the community, from close friends and former teammates to the Florida Panthers Foundation, more than $22,000 has already been raised.
"I knew the hockey community was a family, but now I know just how tight-knit it is," Guilmartin said. "There are teams and players that are reaching out and showing their support, donating and doing everything they can. I know that anyone that has ever been Bobby's teammate is like his brother, and they've expressed that."
Led by McIlmurray, it was many of those "brothers" that came together for the #DeFriestStrong game last weekend at the Panthers IceDen. In what started out as a small game between local skaters, the charity match quickly evolved into something much bigger when the word got out, as many current and former NHL-ers signed up to slip on their skates and lend a helping hand.
"It was just going to be a small game to raise some funds for Bobby," said McIlmurray, who organized the event with the help of Patty Berian, a family friend. "But once we started getting the high-end players like Jason Demers, Anthony Greco and Steven Kampfer, it kind of took off from there. That's when I said, 'Hey, let's make this as big as we can. Let's charge admission, sell shirts and do raffles. Let's make as much money as we can for this family."
McIlmurray said one of his first calls was to former Panthers forward Serge Payer.
"Austin reached out last week and communicated Bobby's story," said Payer, who played 114 of his 124 career NHL games with the Panthers. "It was very fresh to me and quite moving. The hockey community is such a small community, but after hearing about his battle it only made sense to recruit some guys to come out and support his family."
Among those recruits was Greco, who suited up or Florida's AHL affiliate last season.
"Any time you can be a part of something like this and help out and try and raise as much money as possible, it's great," Greco said. "It's a small world. When something like this happens, it's special how everyone comes together and helps out."
In addition to a $10 ticket to the game, which was dubbed "Face-Off Against Cancer," attendees were also encouraged to take part in a silent auction and buy a ticket for the 50-50 raffle, with all of the proceeds going towards the DeFriest family and raising awareness for brain cancer.
"He is so ecstatic," Guilmartin said. "He's calling me every second. He wishes he could be here, but he's so thankful for everything everyone's been doing. He really wants to express that so, so much. He can't thank everyone enough."
Unable to attend the game while recovering, DeFriest watched from the hospital as Guilmartin used the FaceTime app to stream him into the action and walk him around the rink, often taking time to stop so that friends could send their well wishes. And even though he wasn't physically on the ice, his presence could certainly be felt, as every jersey's nameplate read the same.
For updates on DeFriest's status and to learn how you can help, please click HERE.