Photos by Chris Gordon.
A few years ago, I wrote an article about a five-year-old boy named William Shannon who skated with the Capitals as part of the Make-A-Wish program. William had acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It was a heartwarming story about a kid getting a little bit of joy despite a terrifying diagnosis he was probably too young to comprehend. A few days later, he was honored at Verizon Center with the jersey off Alex Semin’s back. It was a nice story, but one with an uncertain ending.
“Hockey is what has gotten him through,” his mom Sandy told me back in 2011. “Our hard days, our tough days, we are watching hockey. On our better days he’s playing hockey.”
Two-and-half years later, William is cancer-free. Monday night, he skated on the same Verizon Center ice he watched on TV from his home in West Virginia — a goalie during the first intermission Mites on Ice game. It doesn’t matter how he played. The triumph was being there — even if it was only for four minutes.
“Him in goal, on the ice in front of all those fans,” William’s father, Devin, said. “It was a thrill. It really was.”
Hockey has been William’s solace. And that’s still true, just with less burden off the ice. He’s been playing hockey since 2009, though he had to take breaks because of his cancer treatments. After years of chemotherapy, William, 8, has been cancer-free since February of this year. Originally a forward, William now switches between the net and the offensive zone.
“Hockey was a big part of his recovery,” said Devin. “Being diagnosed at the age of four with leukemia, it was always ‘Okay, how many more days until hockey?’”
The illness, inevitably, was hard on the family. William’s parents split up. They take turns driving him from their homes around Shepherdsville, WV to Frederick, Maryland, where he plays for the Freeze. Will’s dad is one of the coaches. They aren’t quite to the age when the 5 am practices start, but every drive to the rink takes 90 minutes roundtrip.
“It’s tiring at times,” Devin admitted, “but it’s definitely worth it to see your kid do something he loves.
For the record, William didn’t like that Philipp Grubauer got the start Monday night, a game the Caps lost. It turns out he’s a Braden Holtby partisan. He also likes this dude named Alex Ovechkin.
“They’re our life,” Sandy said of the team. “We live and die by Caps. We watch every game we can possibly get our hands on.”
Now, less than a year out of chemotherapy, William will now get on with a normal life. Illness, especially cancer, becomes an all-consuming enemy. He probably can’t remember what it’s like to be healthy.
“He is no longer a kid fighting to survive but a kid ready to pursue his dreams,” Sandy said.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
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