Just 33 seconds into Saturday's game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators fans were on their feet. The crowd celebrated Ryan Johansen's rebound goal off Ryan Ellis's missed shot, watching the puck meet the back of the net for a 1-0 lead.
Just a few minutes later, all of Bridgestone Arena was on its feet again, this time for a far more emotional meeting. With her parents on hand, Brianne Dollar, who had been diagnosed with acute leukemia and required a bone marrow transplant to save her life, finally got the chance to meet the man who provided the donation she so desperately needed.
Tony Connell's entrance from behind the curtain was a special moment, one that left Brianne, and surely several fans in attendance, reduced to tears. She was finally hugging the man who gave her the gift of life.
"It was definitely overwhelming," Brianne said. "I was so excited; I was just shaking."
It had been nearly a full year since Brianne had received her bone marrow transplant. Seeing the impact that one year had made for an emotional moment for Tony as well.
"I didn't know what to expect," Tony said through a smile. "To walk out there and see a year later, here we are, it was just overwhelming. It was very exciting."
Video: Hockey Fights Cancer: Donor Recipient Reunion
Tony and Brianne's touching reunion was part of Nashville's Hockey Fights Cancer Night. The Predators took part in the League-wide initiative, hosting special guests from the Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital, selling jerseys and gear to benefit the 365 Fund (founded by Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne and Montreal Canadiens defenseman Shea Weber), and encouraging fans to sign up for the Gift of Life Marrow Registry in conjunction with the organization that helped find Brianne's donor a year ago.
"This is what Gift of Life is all about," Director of Development Robyn Malek said of Tony and Brianne's meeting. "It's about the opportunity to bring total strangers together to save another human being's life. I mean, that's why I got involved with Gift of Life. It's truly the greatest gift."
Gift of Life is an organization that helps to cure blood cancer and inherited immune disorders through bone marrow donation and stem cell donation. Headquartered in Boca Raton, Florida, the organization's registry facilitates transplants for children and adults across the world.
"If everybody was to join the registry, nobody would ever die of blood cancer or any other immune disorders," Malek said. "There's all these myths out there that make it a scary process, but the reality is, it's very simple. You swab your cheek. [Tony] barely remembered that he even did it, and then next thing you know, five years later, he's able to save another human being's life. It's really such an incredible opportunity, and we all have the cure in each one of us."
Gift of Life has partnered with the Predators in the past to host donor drives in order to encourage people to sign up for the registry. For some, signing up can require little thought in doing a selfless deed for others. For others, like Tony, being a part of the registry is a personal responsibility.
"My mother received two organ transplants in the past 10 years," Tony said. "I feel very grateful for the individual who signed up to give those, who signed to be a donor in those situations, and I wanted to carry on that legacy and inspire others to do the same."
Brian Small, the assistant director for Vanderbilt Hillel - a group that serves the religious, social, & educational needs of the undergraduate & graduate Jewish-student communities - helped bring Gift of Life to Vanderbilt's campus and to organizations like the Predators. Seeing meetings like Tony and Brianne's make all the work worthwhile.
"This isn't the first donor recipient meeting I've ever seen, but every time I see one, I get chills," Small said. "It's inspiring, it gets everybody's heart going and it really makes people feel generous and warm. It's moments like these that get our students really passionate about doing good in the world and that's a wonderful thing. I hope it inspires action that people go out and learn more about the organization."
To sign up for the registry, click here. To donate to the 365 Pediatric Cancer Fund, click here.