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Hockey Day 2018: Wild fan's legacy lives on with Tanner's Team Foundation

Hockey Day Minnesota 2018 taking place in St. Cloud is about more than hockey to Fuls family

by Todd Smith / Special to

On Oct. 28th, 2010, the Minnesota Wild hosted its annual Hockey Fights Cancer night, a designated evening during the NHL season that unites the sport's community in support of cancer patients and their families.

Tanner Fuls, 11, was the Minnesota Wild's special guest that evening. Tanner, a vibrant and kind-hearted 11-year-old hockey player from Sauk Rapids had Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), a form of pre-leukemia. He had recently undergone chemotherapy treatment.

In honor of Hockey Fights Cancer, Tanner was chosen as the Flag Bearer for the Wild's game that night against the Washington Capitals. Before the game, Tanner stood in the tunnel with a 100-watt smile and waited for his cue to skate onto the ice and triumphantly stamp the Wild's flag at center ice. 

Just before the game started, the arena went dark, spotlights raced around the ice, the Wild's theme song blared, and a young boy's dream was realized. 

Tanner skated the flag out with vigor, reared back, and pounded the Wild's flag straight into the center ice faceoff dot, the epicenter of the State of Hockey.

"It was the proudest moment of my son's life," John Fuls, Tanner's dad, said. "Minnesota Wild players skated past him and gave him fist bumps. Just a few feet away was Alexander Ovechkin, one of Tanner's favorite players."

The very next day on October 29, Tanner checked into the hospital for a bone marrow transplant. Unbowed by his daunting cancer fight ahead, Tanner lit up every hospital room with his huge smile and proudly showed all the nurses the DVD of him skating the flag out before the Wild game. Tanner brought his autographed Mikko Koivu stick with him into the hospital, too. At Children's Hospital a month earlier, Tanner even made a makeshift goal by putting tape on a hallway wall so he could take shots while he was still hooked up to his IV.

During his cancer treatment, Tanner stayed positive and never complained about his pain. On Nov. 8, he received a bone marrow transplant. On Nov. 13, Tanner developed an infection and was transferred to the pediatric ICU and was placed on a ventilator. 

His beloved Minnesota Wild and the sport of hockey were with Tanner through it all, though. When he was in the ICU, Matt Cullen and his wife Bridget paid Tanner a visit. In the midst of all that heartbreak, Cullen placed a signed puck into Tanner's hand. Sadly, it would be the last pass of the puck that Tanner would receive.

On Nov. 27, 2010, Tanner's blood pressure and vitals dropped. Despite a valiant effort by a dedicated team of nurses and doctors to save him, Tanner passed away that evening.

But the positivity and vibrant spirit that Tanner possessed in his life has lived on. This is because in the wake of his death, an outstanding foundation was born. 

In 2011, The Tanner's Team Foundation was formed by Tanner's parents John and Cindy Fuls. Their mission is to help families with children who are fighting a life-threatening illness or serious injury. Specifically, the foundation helps families in 45 central Minnesota counties cover housing, transportation and household costs incurred during their child's care and treatment. 

The Tanner's Team Foundation's mission stems from John and Cindy's own experience when Tanner was first diagnosed and then underwent treatment.

"A lot of it comes from the position that we were put in. We were blindsided by the whole thing," John Fuls said. "Cindy had to basically put her job on hold so that she could be with Tanner at the hospital. I was working a new job and didn't have a lot of vacation time or sick days built up so I couldn't always be there."

The Tanner's Team Foundation helps families meet their day-to-day finances so that they can have peace of mind and concentrate on the health battles in front of them. 

"When a child is sick, the bills keep coming," John Fuls said. "Whether it is the mortgage or electric bill or a car payment, the bills still need to get paid."

To date, The Tanner's Team Foundation has helped over 165 families pay for their utilities, housing, transportation, mortgages and rent. They have raised over $140,000 through donations and various events such as an annual Fun Run/Marathon. In collaboration with the St. Cloud Youth Hockey Association, The Tanner's Team Foundation also hosts a meat raffle to raise money.

Additionally, over the past year, Thrivent Financial has partnered with Tanner's Team to create awareness and raise money for the foundation. Thrivent and its members from across Central Minnesota will be on site at this year's Hockey Day Minnesota promoting Tanner's Team and presenting a fundraising check to the foundation.

This year's Hockey Day Minnesota in St. Cloud means a lot to the Fuls family -- and not just because the game's location is in the state's central region -- the area the foundation primarily serves. The Fuls family has deep roots in the St. Cloud hockey community, too.

"We've been season ticket holders to St. Cloud State hockey for a long time," John Fuls said. "We used to bring Tanner to the games as a baby and young kid and he loved it.

"Tanner played from mini-mites to pee wees in the St. Cloud area. He played his summer hockey in St. Cloud and was a part of the St. Cloud team 99 Flames. The kids that Tanner played with back then are all seniors now. They will be playing against each other in the game between St. Cloud Cathedral and St. Cloud high school."

After his initial diagnosis, Tanner got tremendous support from his friends in the St. Cloud Youth Hockey Association and the St. Cloud State University hockey team. Tanner even helped to create a slogan for his support team. 

"Together we learn. Together we fight. Together we win."

It is no accident that the slogan Tanner came up with has a sentiment that can easily be applied to both a hockey team and a community rallying together to fight cancer. For Tanner Fuls, the sport of hockey and helping other were always uniquely tied together. This why the logo for the foundation that was created in his name features a cancer ribbon flanked by two hockey sticks.

"The last time my son laced up his skates was on the Wild's home ice. He went out on a high note thanks to the Minnesota Wild," John Fuls said, reflecting on his son's legacy.

"We know from being in the situation with a sick child what a family is going through. Just to be able to help a family for a month or six months means so much. We realize what a relief it is to get help. It is something that you'll never realize until you're put in that position. Our foundation is our way of paying it forward."

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