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Meet-and-Greet Sparks Hockey Passion

by Matthew Calamia / New York Rangers

Perceptions can change in an instant, as Natalie Kennedy learned several years ago when she had the chance to skate with several Rangers at the Madison Square Garden Training Center.

Before that day, she thought hockey players were big, tough guys who hit each other for a living. While that may be true, she quickly learned they have big hearts as well.

“They seem to big and strong on the ice,” Natalie, 14, said, “but they’re just regular people.”

The reason for Natalie’s skating session was because she was battling leukemia. The Garden of Dreams Foundation, the non-profit organization that works with the Rangers to positively impact children facing obstacles, arranged for her and her family — all hockey fans — to skate with the Blueshirts after a practice.

Little did they know that that event would spark a love of hockey in Natalie that’s been growing ever since.

TOP: Natalie drops the puck at Madison Square Garden. ABOVE: Natalie with her brother Chris at MSG.

“My dad grew up essentailly in Canada, so he brought hockey to our family,” said Natalie, who was a figure skater at an early age. “I like watching the guys skating fast, skating hard and scoring. I said [that day] that’s what I want to do.”

Since then, Natalie — who plays center — has played in local leagues and on a travel team and shows no signs of slowing down, especially because of her illness, which her mother, AnnMarie, says is behind her.

“I’m happy to say that my faith leads me to believe she’s not in remission, but she’s cured,” AnnMarie said, who said her daughter has been cancer-free for five years.

But the days weren’t always as bright as they are today. AnnMarie recalled when her daughter first showed signs of illness just shy of her 6th birthday. Her daughter came down with a fever and had trouble walking the next day at school.

“That was it,” AnnMarie said. “Literally from the first sign of it on Wednesday at 5 o’clock to Friday morning knowing she had cancer. It came crashing down on us like a tidal wave.”

Natalie was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, often referred to as childhood leukemia. What followed was over two years of chemotherapy, which included injections in her spine, leg and blood to prevent the disease from spreading.

While at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital in Westchester, the Kennedy’s were visited by the Garden of Dreams Foundation, and a relationship with the Rangers was born.

That led to the skate at the MSGTC, which AnnMarie said Natalie was more going along for the enjoyment of seeing her brother skate with the players. But once Natalie hit the ice, things changed.

“She just stole their hearts,” she said of her daughter and the players. “It was priceless. She fell in love with [Lundqvist]. She’s just thinking this guy is just the best big brother or uncle.” From there, the desire to play hockey was born.

Natalie and her brother, Chris, with Henrik Lundqvist.

In the years since that, Natalie, now 14, has been invited back to Madison Square Garden several times, including in 2009 to drop the puck at center ice and to take part in last year’s Blueshirts Off Their back ceremony, in which she got Dominic Moore’s jersey.

“I was really excited,” Natalie said of being at the ceremony last April. “Probably could not stop smiling and I was glad I wasn’t on TV because I was red in the face.” She said Moore’s No. 28 jersey hangs in her room by her bed so “whenever I roll over on my side I can see it.”

AnnMarie said that chance the Rangers and Garden of Dreams afforded Natalie and the family all those years ago is “the gift that keeps giving.”

“At the time we were going through the cancer, it was a fabulous distraction,” she said. “It made her feel like she was special. It made her feel important.”

“It created a love of a sport in her that now gives her great joy,” she added. “It’s the gift that keeps giving. [The Ranger and GDF] turned on a light that she didn’t know she’d have any interest in.”

For Natalie, having the Rangers and GDF around gave her something to look forward to when there wasn’t much to be happy about in her life during her fight with the illness.

“The Garden of Dreams is a family to us,” she said. “Whenever we’d have a new treatment or something going on, they’d always come and bring our spirits back up. It was something that helped me keep going. Just a couple more days, you’re going to see them all in a few days.”

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