WATERVILLE — Konnor Gardner watched the Colby College men’s ice hockey team practice. He fidgeted in the stands at Alfond Rink while his mother, Renee Gardner, sat nearby. When practice is over, Konnor will meet the Mules, his new teammates.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” Konnor said.
“They’ll tell you, buddy,” Renee said.
A Pittsfield native, Konnor, who recently turned 7, was born with Neurofibromatosis1, a disorder characterized by the growth of non-cancerous tumors on the spine. In October, 2012, a tumor was found in Konnor’s brain. He undergoes chemotherapy treatment, and has four treatments left, his mother said. Konnor is doing well, she said.
This opportunity with the Colby men’s ice hockey team is the work of Team IMPACT (Inspire, Motivate, Play Against Challenges Together), an organization that pairs children battling severe illness with a college sports team.
In early November, Team IMPACT was able to pair Konnor with the Mules.
“I kept it a secret until it was a go, then he got ecstatic,” Renee said. “He told all his friends this was where he’s coming after school.”
The interaction benefits everybody. Konnor gets two dozen big brothers, two dozen new members of a support system that for a kid fighting cancer, can never be overstuffed. The Mules get to put leadership and team building skills learned on the ice to work in a real world situation.
“(Konnor’s) going to be around as much as he wants to be,” assistant coach Chris Hall said. “When you’re someplace like Colby, you get a sense of, ‘Hey, look at how good life is.’ This keeps you grounded. We can share some of our enjoyment with somebody else.”
Konnor asked a lot of questions. Why is the rink cold? Will I get a locker? Why isn’t practice over yet? When Colby head coach Blaise MacDonald brought him a full water bottle, Konnor busted the coach’s chops for practice running long.
Soon enough, practice was over, and MacDonald brought Konnor into the locker room to meet his team. Konnor’s stall is the first one on the left. His name and number, 2, are taped on it, just like the rest of the Mules.
“Hey number two! Do you want to say a few words to the boys?” MacDonald asked.
Konnor shook his head no, and sat in his stall, next to junior forward Ray Zeek.
“He is not shy at all,” Renee said. “He gets embarrassed, but he’s not shy.”
Still, Konnor had more questions. Will I get a helmet? What time should I be here for the game? Did you see my locker? Are you sure I’ll get a helmet?
MacDonald gave Konnor a hockey stick, and then it was time to make this official. It was time for Konnor’s signing ceremony. In front of the team and some media, MacDonald presented Konnor with his Colby sweater. Number 2, with his last name, Gardner, on the back. Konnor and MacDonald signed the letter of intent, making Konnor a Colby Mule.
With all the book keeping complete, applause filled the room, bouncing off the walls right into Konnor’s face. The newest member of the Colby men’s ice hockey team shook MacDonald’s hand.
With that, the talkative, inquisitive, outgoing kid was suddenly speechless.
“He’s not afraid of Blaise, and most kids on our team are afraid of him,” senior assistant captain Brendan Cosgrove said. “There are more important things than hockey. None of us know the experiences he’s going through. Having Konnor around puts things in perspective.”
A leadership group of six players will work with Konnor and his family to keep him involved with the Mules. He’ll attend games, practices, team functions, whatever he’s able to do.
“He’s super cheerful. He’s super excited to be here. That’s going to give us energy,” senior captain Nick Lanza said. “When the guys saw how enthusiastic he is, it made us enthusiastic too.”
Before he went into the locker room for the first time, before he was officially a member of the Colby men’s ice hockey team, Konnor stood on the bench with MacDonald, looking at the ice. It looks slippery, Konnor said.
“Come on out. You’ll be all right,” MacDonald said.
Hand in hand, MacDonald and Konnor walked on to the ice, where they stood at the face-off circle. When they came back, Konnor ran.
“I have a hockey team,” Konnor said, pointing at the Alfond Rink ice. “I’m on their team.”
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242