September 29, 2012

Islanders Hockey Club touched by an angel

By Shawn Hutcheon

If you will indulge this writer for a moment or two, I have been a sportswriter for almost three years. I have covered, met and interviewed amateur, college, professional and Olympic athletes as well as coaches. I have spoken with national champions, Stanley Cup champions, world champions and gold medalists. I have even interviewed the 2011 Miss USA. 

Islanders coach Sean Tremblay (center) holds up Avalanna's jersey alongside Derek Stahl (left) and Colton Phinney. (Photo: Shawn Hutcheon/New England Hockey Journal)

I tell you this because I am very happy to report that I have never encountered any one person who was less than cordial and gracious. When asked about what I do, I simply tell people that I am living the dream. Part of living that dream is getting the opportunity to meet people who go that extra mile, people who transcend sports. One such group is the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s Islanders Hockey Club.

On September 9, 2012, the Islanders took part in the Boston Marathon Jimmy Fund Walk. The hockey team raised $12,000 for the battle against child cancers and achieved this remarkable feat walking in the memory of Guy Lajeunesse, who was current Islander defenseman Kyle Lajeunesse’s father. Sadly, Guy lost his battle with brain cancer last May and is missed by his -- and the entire Islander -- family.

The Islanders also walked and raised funds that day as members of Avalanna’s Angels. The group was inspired by six year old Avalanna Routh (Merrimac, Mass.), who was battling Atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor, a rare form of brain cancer referred to as AT/RT. It can be diagnosed in three per one million children each year.  

Avalanna gained international notoriety when she was a patient at Massachusetts General Hospital. She, with the help of the nursing staff, “married” her favorite singer, pop music superstar Justin Bieber, during a mock wedding ceremony which included a cardboard cut out of the crooner. Bieber, soon after, visited Avalanna at the hospital to meet “Mrs. Bieber.” The meeting, and its photographs, made headlines around the globe.

Islanders players and coaches also visited Avalanna frequently. They would play games and sing her favorite songs with her. They had their hearts stolen by a wonderful little girl. Soon after meeting her, the hockey team presented their biggest, little fan with an autographed Islanders Hockey Club jersey that had the No. 1 on the back and her name “Avalanna” above the number. She cherished her gift and the group of young men cherished her.

Sadly, earlier this week, Avalanna’s health took a turn for the worse.

“I was with her and her family last Tuesday night,” head coach Sean Tremblay (Newburyport, Mass.) said. “They’re close friends of mine. I just stroked her hair and rubbed her feet. She always liked that. It was a difficult night.” 

On Wednesday morning, Avalanna’s family took to Twitter to make the announcement no one wanted to read. 

Avalanna's jersey, autographed by coach Sean Tremblay and the Islanders players, was hung up in the locker room Friday. (Photo: Shawn Hutcheon/New England Hockey Journal)

"Our darling Avalanna went to Heaven this morning,” the Routh family wrote. “Oh Avalanna, the brightest star - you took our hearts with you, our greatest Love."

The next day, Bieber responded with a tweet of his own.

"Just got the worst news ever,” Bieber wrote. “One of the greatest spirits I have ever known is gone. Please pray for her family and for her. RIP Avalanna. I love you."

The news of Avalanna’s passing left every Islanders’ player with a heavy heart.

The team took the ice for a home game in Tyngsboro, Mass. on Friday against the Boston Bandits and, as they played, Avalanna’s Islanders jersey hung beside the team bench. The Islanders pulled out a 3-2 win, but it was not just another game for the players or coaches.

“We dedicated this one to Avalanna,” Tremblay explained in a quiet post-game Islanders dressing room. “This was a tough one for us to play. She was on our minds throughout the game.”

Tremblay’s squad does not have a game scheduled for Saturday or Sunday.

“It’s a good thing we don’t play this weekend,” the coach said, visibly saddened by the loss of his little fan. “We’ll be at the wake and the funeral.”  

That, quite simply, won’t be easy for Tremblay and his team after forming such a strong bond with Avalanna, but he knows the Routh family needs support now more than ever.

“It’s been so hard on the family,” Tremblay said. “We want to be there for them and support them.”

This weekend, as you focus on how much you miss professional hockey because of a lockout and complain about the real NFL referees, please stop for a moment and remember, maybe even say a prayer for a little hockey fan who made an immense impression on a hockey team.

The Islanders are a team that gives their all on the ice, but more importantly, off it. And they’re a team that will always walk together as Avalanna’s Angels, as the angel herself, Avalanna, skates with them.

Shawn Hutcheon can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ShawnHutcheon.