Friday afternoon, two dozen cancer survivors filed into the Capitals locker room, taking a seat at their corresponding player’s stall. The following evening, the Caps were hosting Hockey Fights Cancer Night at Verizon Center. Each Capitals player would wear a lavender jersey with the last name of the Wish Kid they were playing for stitched on the back. The players and cancer survivors were to first meet face-to-face that Friday after the Caps finished practice.
Seven-year-old Connor Durgin, not one for following directions or the cards he’s been dealt in life, stood in the middle of the locker room with excitement.
When his player, future Hall of Famer Alex Ovechkin, walked in, Connor held up his sign and let out a large coo. He almost fell over.
The two hugged. Connor, grinning from ear-to-ear, only stood up to Ovechkin’s waist.
Connor’s mother Heather will tell you that her son’s life is miracle – a tale of hard work, optimism, and strength.
Connor was born with infantile myofibromatosis. Only 1 in 150,000 to 400,000 children are born with this condition. “They said the chance that he would be born alive was 20%,” Heather wrote on her family’s Collaborate4Connor Facebook page. “If he survived that they said he would likely be a quadriplegic.”
When Heather gave birth, Connor had a tumor wrapped around his neck.
“He looked like Quasimodo,” Heather said bluntly in an interview with CSN Mid-Atlantic’s Jill Sorenson. “It was pretty substantial.”
“And then he had tumors in his thigh and his arm,” Heather continued, her voice trembling with emotion. “They removed the tumor in his arm. They took an ice cream scoop out of his back.”
But Connor was a special breed. He kept fighting.
“A good story about his character: He’s premature. He’s strapped down. His wrists are tied down to the bed and they had just installed the trach,” Heather explained. “It was sewn in. He was hooked up to a ventilator. And he reached his hand up and yanked the [tube] out.”
“Wow, you’re like, ‘We have a fighter’” Soreson observed.
“Yes. yes!” Heather said. “And he’s been like that his whole life.”
Connor would fall behind the developmental stages of normal kids. He would not speak until he was three-and-a-half-years-old. He communicated with his parents using a modified sign language. Eventually, he let out a mama and da-dah. He would later learn how to ice skate and play hockey.
“He comes here and he doesn’t stop talking,” Heather said. “Anything he’s ever done, he goes in full bore. He’s constantly happy and on the go. He’s an unstoppable force.”
As Connor hung out with the players in the locker room that day, the precocious seven-year-old was just like any other child. He would obliterate Justin Williams in a hand-combat game.
He played with Nate Schmidt on the floor. He commanded the room.
“Yay!!!! Do pushups with me on YOU,” screamed Connor while he sat on Schmidt as if he were his personal llama.
But it was Connor’s bond with Ovechkin that was the most adorable.
“My mom bought me yellow laces,” Connor told Ovechkin.
Ovechkin, honored, gave Connor his own signature pair. “But you can keep it,” Ovechkin said. “Keep it.”
Later, Ovechkin would take Connor out onto the team’s practice rink and skate around with him. His gift-giving was not done.
“Connor, it’s you,” Ovechkin said, handing the cancer survivor one of his game-used sticks. “It’s for you. Take it.”
Connor grabbed the twig and raced far ahead of the Russian machine. “I’m too fast!” he said with joy.
The next night, Connor would go to Verizon Center for the Caps-Panthers game. He would watch warmups along the glass.
Ovi found Connor and tossed him a puck.
Connor, clutching the laces Ovechkin gave him previously, smiled and waved to the crowd.
Ovechkin’s lavender jersey, which said Durgin on the back, raised over $3,000 during an in-game auction. The Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation raised $125,605 in total that night for cancer-related charities, including Make-A-Wish Mid-Atlantic – the organization Connor belongs to.
But the money was of secondary importance. All of the children had a thrilling night that they’d never forget. They met some of their favorite athletes. Their long days of pain and suffering — which they had fought through valiantly — were now being rewarded with joy and happiness. The night was all about them.
“So he’s gonna be good in the future?” Ovechkin asked Connor’s father.
“Yep,” Connor’s dad said. “He’s been cancer-free for a year-and-a-half now.”
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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