Astonished to turn around and see Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg
appear before him, the usually loquacious teenager was quickly awash in goose bumps, a contagious smile stretched from ear to ear. While it took a moment for Tristan to holster the excitement, it was evident that the 2008 Conn Smythe winner got a kick out of surprising the 15-year-old from Lapeer, Mich.
“It was fun to surprise him out there,” Zetterberg said. “He’s a tremendous kid with a lot of energy and a lot of joy. It’s fun to see that.”
Zetterberg and his teammates were thrilled to welcome such a hockey enthusiast as Tristan to their morning skate as the team prepared for Monday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“Just to see how excited he is with a smile on his face, it’s pretty neat that he can come down here,” center Justin Abdelkader
said. “I couldn’t imagine how excited I would have been at his age if I had an opportunity like this. It just brings us joy that we can bring him so much excitement.”
Like Zetterberg, Tristan is a prolific goal-scorer, who knows the exhilaration of winning a hockey championship – though his was achieved while he operated a motorized wheelchair.
Tristan led his Seals team to the 2011 Wheelers Cup, where he won the Presidents Trophy as the playoff MVP when he scored 13 goals with eight assists in four games.
“I enjoy playing my favorite game and being with other people in wheelchairs, we all get along and it’s a place where I fit in,” said Tristan, in his third season as a forward in the four-team Wheelchair Hockey League of Michigan.
Monday’s visit to The Joe – which was made possible by the Michigan chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation – also included tickets to the game, a pregame Zamboni ride, and a visit with coach Mike Babcock and Fox Sports Detroit analysis Mickey Redmond in the coach’s office.
A sophomore at Lapeer West High School, Tristan doesn’t have the skeletal strength to walk on his own, which automatically makes him different at school, his mom, Cheryl Mercier said.
So standing in the Wings’ locker room and watching players – one-by-one and without hesitation – walk up to her son and shower him with the VIP treatment, tears flowed down her face.
“I can’t begin to explain what this means to him,” Mercier said. “He is so deprived of doing everyday stuff that kids take for granted, so this once-in-a-lifetime thing for him is …he deserves it. He goes through a lot every day in school.”
Tristan was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disorder known as brittle bone disease, which causes bones to break easily and often from little or no apparent reason. It affects between 20,000 and 50,000 Americans with no known cure.
By the time his family celebrated his third birthday, it’s estimated that Tristan had fractured 30 bones and his vulnerable body had withstood 15 surgeries. Soon after that his mom stopped keeping count of broken bones.
Tristan’s quality of life depends on the titanium rods that course through his body and help stabilize his soft bones. But as he grows, the rods will bend and must be surgically replaced.
“He doesn’t break as many bones as he used to,” Mercier said. “I don’t keep track anymore, but if I did he’s probably had 40 fractures or more.”
Relatively self-sufficient at home, Tristan struggles to be a “regular” teenager and has missed out on some of the rites of passage, which come with being in high school.
“The toughest thing is probably blending in each day at high school, seeing other teenagers getting their (driver’s) license and things like that,” Mercier said. “He’s not able to jump in a car and go hang-out with people, so just being a teenager is tough for him right now.
“But he gets around himself. The teachers at school are amazed; they tell me that they don’t even see the wheelchair. They told me that they see a regular kid with such a good attitude that they don’t even see the wheelchair. He’s pretty self-functional.”
Once the nervousness of being in the Wings’ locker room subsided Monday, Tristan talked up many of the players, including Nicklas Lidstrom
, Todd Bertuzzi
, Drew Miller
, Pavel Datsyuk
and Jonathan Ericsson
. Not bad for someone who though he was going to practice with the outside chance of meeting a player or two.
“All I knew was that I was probably going to go out to the ice and see the locker room,” he said. “I’m shaking. I was overwhelmed by the fact that I got to meet Henrik.”
Tristan had the opportunity to sit down with his idol after the morning skate, where Zetterberg presented his guest with a signed game jersey and left-handed game stick.
“I know his disease and I know a little about it. I know he’s a big fan and that he was coming in this morning,” Zetterberg said. “Actually, it wasn’t planned, but I went out to paint my sticks and I saw him out on the ice, so I figured that I would go out and have a nice chat.”
Another funny moment occurred when Zetterberg’s teammates, after learning that Tristan is a right-handed shot, also gave him one of Ian White
’s right-handed sticks.
“He was in a state of shock,” Mercier said. “Still, I don’t think he can believe what’s going on. In a couple of days it will all sink in because he didn’t know all of the details of today. This is way beyond what he imagined.
“He’s all star-struck right now.”
For Tristan, playing hockey with other wheelchair-bound people inflicted by diseases with similarly difficult names to pronounce makes him happy. Though nothing can replace the joy of watching the Wings in the playoffs, he said.
“Every year it’s so much fun because they’re such a great team and every game is entertaining to watch,” Tristan said. “Every year, ever since I was born, they’ve been in the playoffs and my favorite time of the year is to watch them push for the Stanley Cup.” Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill