From the outside, it might seem like the oddest of friendships. I'm an old man into my, um, forty-teens. Bria, meanwhile, is a kid who just turned 13. We both love the Ottawa Senators. We're diehard fans.
She celebrated her 13th birthday in style as she and her family were guests in the suite of Sens owner Eugene Melnyk last Thursday. I was able to spend a little bit of time with them that night. I gave her a present, she got to meet Sens Alumni members Laurie Boschman and local NHL and rural farming icons Fred and John Barrett. Her mom and dad, April and Kerry, have literally made me feel like part of their extended family since meeting them a month ago.
Cancer is a horrible word, but there are so many beautiful and wonderful friendships and bonds that form because of it. Some people are BFFs. Bria and I are one better than that. We are brain tumour buddies.
In November, I spoke publicly about my battle with cancer for the first time as Ian Mendes and Lee Versage invited me to tell my story on TSN1200 during the Sens pre-game show on Hockey Fights Cancer Night. I tried to make my message positive. Last spring, I went to Kemptville District Hospital thinking I had a concussion from a fender bender and it turned out to be a blood cancer that formed a tumour and ate a big chunk of my skull. When it penetrated the first layer of defense in my brain, things got real. I was rushed into surgery. They removed more of my skull, got the tennis ball-sized tumour out, put in a titanium plate, stapled my head shut, and once the swelling in my brain went down, the daily radiation treatments at the Ottawa Cancer Centre began.
The incredible support from the Diva, her dad and brother, the kids and a handful of very close friends helped me through the battle. On the day of my last treatment, I got home from the Cancer Centre to a surprise party the Diva had put together without me suspecting anything. It was one of the best days of my life. It also reminded me of how lucky I am - lucky to be alive, lucky to have an incredible wife, lucky to be surrounded by love and support, and lucky to have met lifelong friends on my journey.
So, yes, going to the Sens game on Hockey Fights Cancer Night was a big deal for me.
But for Bria, it was an even bigger deal.
Bria had surgery, and then embarked on a 70-week journey of chemotherapy. Every Thursday night, her family road trips from Kingston to Ottawa to stay at Ronald McDonald House. When there is a Sens game on Thursday nights, they can usually be found in Bobby Ryan's CHEO All-Star Kids suite. On Friday mornings, she has her chemo treatment. On the way home, she is what you would expect a young girl to be after a chemo session. She's tired, nauseous and fragile. But she's strong. And brave. And she's a fighter.
Hockey Fights Cancer Night happened to fall on a Friday night this year. It also fell on the day of her 50th chemo treatment.
"Bria had never been able to go to a game on a Friday night," her mom, April, told me. "She's always too sick and weak after the treatment. But she told me there is no way she was going to miss this night."
Bria made it to Hockey Fights Cancer Night. Her dad, Kerry, gave her some ginger ale and pretzels during the day - something easy on her stomach. She cheered and enjoyed the game as any hockey fanatic would.
If you or a family member have ever dealt with cancer, you always remember the life-altering moment when you learn of the diagnosis. For Kerry, it was especially difficult. He is in the military and was overseas in Afghanistan.
"I got on the first plane back to Canada," he told me. "I had to get home as fast as I could."
Our mutual friend, Kelsey Underwood, wanted to connect us. Kelsey is the hostess in the Bobby Ryan suite, and she knows Bria and her family well. She brings an invaluable source of energy, passion and a sense of community to the Aramark team at Canadian Tire Centre. She told me in December that Bria and her family would be in the Candlelighters suite. Rick Smith, a Boston Bruins legend and a Kingston native, went with me to meet Bria and her family.
We shared our stories. Bria and I compared our brain surgery scars and talked about our journeys. I wanted to give her some encouragement. "Never forget these words," I told her. "Tough times don't last, tough people do."
April told me last week that Bria repeats the words I told her when she's down, and she even made a sign for over her desk. "Tough times don't last, tough people do." They have become her words to live by.
"She really wants to give other people fighting cancer hope and encouragement," April told me.
She already is. And her positive attitude, strength and bravery has become a source of inspiration with the Senators players, the building staff, and the many fans she has met along the way.
Tough times don't last, tough people do. And Bria is the toughest kid I know.