Saturday, 15 April 2017 08:00

Lethbridge boy has special hockey wish granted

Written by  J.W. Schnarr
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Thirteen-year-old Riley Zimmer was recently hosted by the Chicago Blackhawks with the help of Make-A-Wish Southern Alberta. Thirteen-year-old Riley Zimmer was recently hosted by the Chicago Blackhawks with the help of Make-A-Wish Southern Alberta. Southern Alberta Newspapers photo by Ian Martens

A 13-year-old Lethbridge boy battling cancer was able to live out his dream of facing some of his hockey heroes on the ice through Make-A-Wish Southern Alberta.


Riley Zimmer plays goaltender at the bantam level and is a huge Chicago Blackhawks fan. His dream was to see the Blackhawks play. Make-A-Wish took his dream a step further when they provided him an opportunity not only to travel to Chicago to take in a game, but to suit up against his ‘Hawks heroes.
The event was a way for Riley and his family to celebrate after a nearly year-long battle with Burkitt lymphoma.
“I was really happy,” said Riley, who said practising with the players was his favourite part of the trip.
In May last year, Riley was outside playing basketball with a friend when he felt a sore lump on his face. It was about the size and texture of a small golf ball. Riley assumed he had somehow hurt himself after being tripped during a soccer game the night before.
“This guy tripped me from behind and I fell, and it hurt,” said Riley. “I thought it was from that.”
It was a lymph node on the left side of Riley’s face that had become swollen.
Burkitt lymphoma often causes all the lymph nodes to swell up, and can cause breathing problems.
“When you mention Burkitt lymphoma in a teenager, they all get really worried,” said Riley’s father, Michael. “You get pushed through the system.”
Because Riley’s lymphoma was only causing swelling on one side, doctors initially thought Riley might have the mumps. When he failed to respond to treatment, an ultrasound and biopsy were needed to determine the cause.
Riley had two rounds of chemotherapy and had to battle complications with infection following surgery to remove the cancerous node. After three months, he was on the long road to recovery.
In November last year, the Make-A-Wish Foundation asked Riley about his wish. According to Michael, Make-A-Wish asks children for three wishes in order to have some options if they are unable to accommodate a specific request.
Riley only had one wish. He wanted to go to Chicago and meet his heroes.
Being a Blackhawks fan is something of a family tradition for Riley, who shares a love of the team with his grandfather and cousins.
Riley was just the right age in 2010 when the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, which sealed him as a fan.
He also has another connection to the team — he has an uncle who played hockey with Lethbridge NHLer Chris Versteeg, who had two stints in Chicago and won two Stanley Cups in that city.
“The trip got (Riley’s uncle) and Riley going about what he was going to do down there,” said Michael. “Family functions would turn into those two talking about Chicago.”
Michael said it was heartening for the family to be able to take the trip and recoup some of the family time lost during the summer last year due to his son’s illness.
“We didn’t get to do the normal things that the family does,” he said.
“When we got down there, and went to the United Centre, they treated us really nice.”
Leaving for Chicago at the end of February and returning home five days later, the Zimmers managed to pack a full-sized vacation into the time they had available.
On the morning of the game, a limo arrived to pick up Riley and his family. They were taken to the United Centre where the Blackhawks play. He was given an opportunity to sit on the players bench and watch the team practise.
Then he hit the ice.
“He got dressed in his goalie gear and he got to go play net,” said Michael. “He’s got (a) Go Pro video of it, and the Chicago Blackhawks had (a camera crew) following him around.”
Riley had an opportunity to face off against some of his favourite Blackhawks players, including fan favourites Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews.
“Kane deked him out and put one up high on him,” said Michael.
Riley spent about 30 minutes on the ice with his heroes and took part in a number of different drills and exercises.
“Once they saw Riley could stop a few, they started trying a little harder,” said Michael.
Even the coaching staff got in on the fun. During one drill, Michael said ‘Hawks assistant coach Kevin Dineen jokingly offered bonus points for any player who could knock the camera off Riley’s helmet.
“We’re so grateful for Make-A-Wish,” said Micheal. “I don’t know how easy or hard it is to approach organizations like the Chicago Blackhawks and ask for a wish, but the effort they put in made it very special for our family. We can’t thank them enough.”

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