Capitals left wing Jason Chimera knows he is not unique when he says cancer has had a lasting impact on his life.
“I think if you ask around the locker room, everyone’s been affected by cancer in some way, shape or form,” Chimera said as the Capitals prepared for their annual Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night tonight against the Columbus Blue Jackets [7 p.m., CSN].
“Being a hockey player you get to know a lot of people in the cancer community. You see a lot of kids and you become close with a lot of families. You want to find a cure, no matter what. You want to make a difference and knock that disease out of the record books.”
Chimera lost two of his grandparents to cancer. And when he steps on the ice for warmups tonight wearing a Capitals jersey trimmed in lavender his thoughts will be with them.
But they will also be with the spirit of a young Blue Jackets fan Chimera befriended in his final full season in Columbus in 2008-09.
It was during that season that Chimera met 18-year-old Ryan Salmons, a club hockey defenseman who had been diagnosed with alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer.
When Ryan was first diagnosed, his family was told that if left untreated, he would pass in two weeks.
And so began Ryan’s 13-month bout with cancer and, by extension, a budding relationship with Chimera. It was during one of the Blue Jacket’s local hospital visits that Chimera met Ryan.
“It was a special relationship you don’t get with many people,” Chimera recalled. “Some kids you click with more than others.”
Following his diagnosis Ryan was hospitalized for 69 straight days and despite aggressive chemotherapy, a tumor in his pelvis obstructed the nerve wall that controlled his bowel and bladder function. He became partially paralyzed below the waist and when he returned home he was 44 pounds lighter than when he arrived, needing the assistance of a walker.
Ryan’s father, Brad Salmons, enlisted the help of his parents to assist with the needs of his son. When he returned home from work, he’d often find Chimera and former Blue Jackets teammate Manny Malhotra sitting in his living room.
“When they could be home with their own kids, they’d be spending time with Ryan, trying to help him get through the day,” Brad Salmons said. “I can’t explain what that meant for me as a parent.”
Chimera struggled through groin injuries that season and spent many evenings visiting Ryan at his home or in his hospital room, watching Blue Jackets games together on television.
“I was going through my injury and he was fighting for his life,” Chimera recalled. “It really puts things in perspective and really humbles you to see what a kid he was and how he went through it. He was still trying to help people out when he was on his death bed. He was a special kid.”
In February of 2009 Ryan’s liver shut down and chemotherapy treatments ended. By then he had become such a popular part of the Blue Jackets community that on March 26, 2009, the team signed him to a one-day contract.
The document was signed by former Blue Jackets general manager Scott Howson and ratified by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly.
“That was pretty cool,” Chimera said.
It was around that same time that Ryan asked Chimera and Malhotra if they would be pallbearers at his funeral. Neither hesitated.
“He was near and dear,” Chimera said. “You kind of ride that wave with the families. You become part of children’s lives for a couple years and then they pass away. It’s tough. As a parent, I don’t know what I’d do without my kids, so it really hits home.”
Ryan attended the Blue Jackets’ final two games of the regular season and each of their two home playoff games. A week after the Jackets were eliminated from the playoffs, on May 1, 2009, Ryan passed away at the age of 19.
“I believed he was trying to hang around to be part of that playoff push,” Brad Salmons said, “and as soon as that was over, it was like there was nothing left for him.”
The following season Chimera was traded to the Capitals and when he and his wife, Sarah, were blessed with their second child, they named their baby girl Ryann in memory of their late friend.
“When I asked him about it,” Brad Salmons said, “he said, ‘I think your son was whispering in my ear.’”
To this day, Chimera has remained friends with Brad Salmons, exchanging phone calls and text messages and meeting for dinner when the Caps visit Columbus.
“To me he’s kind of like a second son,” Salmons said. “It talks about his character. What he does is not a show. To me, he’s the epitome of an NHL hockey player. Most of the things he did, he didn’t care if anybody knew because it came from the heart. His heart is bigger than the way he plays on the ice. He has a passion to help people.”
Chimera said he is concerned about the links between environment and cancer and as a result his family tries to eat fruits, vegetables and organic foods from local farm markets and avoids fast food.
“Any time you can put cancer in the limelight it’s a good thing,” he said. “You can’t bring enough awareness to it. You can never have enough money for research and to help people affected by it. You can always use more.”
Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation will host a jersey auction during tonight’s game to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s National Capital Area Chapter. The jerseys will be autographed by players and auctioned off at the MSE Foundation table located on the main concourse at section 104 of Verizon Center. Bidding will start when doors open at 6 p.m. and will conclude when the second intermission ends.
Hockey Fights Cancer is an initiative founded in December 1998 by the National Hockey League and the National Hockey League Player’s Association to raise money and awareness for hockey’s most important fight. To date, through the NHL’s U.S. and Canadian charitable foundations, more than $12.8 million has been raised under the Hockey Fights Cancer initiative to support national and local cancer research institutions, children’s hospitals, player charities and local cancer organizations. The Hockey Fights Cancer program is also a component of the NHL’s “Biggest Assist Happens Off the Ice” campaign - the League’s long-standing tradition of addressing important social issues in North America and around the world.