Rivals help family shutout cancer

When it comes to cancer, sharing stories with others can be quite powerful.

Hockey is one way to bring people together for a cause and that’s exactly what happened earlier this month at Coon Rapids Ice Center.

The arena was the site of a day-long (Dec. 7) fund raiser to benefit Jaela’s Ultimate Cancer Shutout in conjunction with the Blaine and Coon Rapids youth hockey associations.

Jaela O’Brien, middle, poses with friends and teammates during an outing at Target Field. Submitted photo
Jaela O’Brien, middle, poses with friends and teammates during an outing at Target Field. Submitted photo

Jaela O’Brien is middle school student in Blaine who recently turned 14 years old and has a deep passion for hockey, specifically protecting the goal as a goalie in the Blaine Youth Hockey Association.

Last May she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL), which is a cancer of the white blood cells. Malignant, immature white blood cells continually multiply in the bone marrow. The cells crowd out normal cells in the marrow and spread to other organs if not properly treated.

She headed to Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota to begin treatment the same day she received the diagnosis and is in week 29 of a 156-week treatment plan.

Katie Meister, Jaela’s mother, said the stories shared at the Coon Rapids Ice Center made her day.

“It was really the highlight of the event, being able to share stories,” she said. “Everyone has a story about how they’ve been affected by it and we really build power off each other.”

Collegiate Charities helped organize the event.

Soon after receiving the diagnosis, Meister, with help from friends and family, had eight events in the works to build cancer awareness and raise funds for a costly battle against cancer.

“I wasn’t past the acceptance stage and we had benefits, a jewelry party, cookout and ice cream social already in the works,” she said.

A golf outing at Majestic Oaks in Ham Lake is in the works for May 17. They took part in the Light-up the Night event at Target Field and the two were asked to do the ceremonial “Drop the Puck” before a Minnesota Wild game on High Fights Cancer night in October. Jaela was a flag bearer before a preseason game, too.

While at the Wild game, the team set up a meeting with her idol – L.A. Kings goalie Jonathan Quick.

“She does her version of the ‘Quick scramble’ on the ice where she’ll make 3-5-8-10 saves in a row,” Meister said.

Jaela also likes how he deflects attention from himself, just like 100 mph slapshots, she said.

“He never talks about his performance but the team, [Jaela’s] like that too,” Meister said.

The Kings defeated Minnesota in the shoot out and the first thing Quick said to Jaela afterwards was how the defensemen helped him out on two saves. “She thought that was awesome,” Meister said.

Helmet stickers like these show support for Jaela throughout the Twin Cities. Submitted photo
Helmet stickers like these show support for Jaela throughout the Twin Cities. Submitted photo

The Saturday event began with three Coon Rapids versus Blaine girls’ games (U10B, U10A and U12A) and Coon Rapids D mites.

Champlin Park helped the Cardinals end the day with junior varsity and varsity games. The varsity game began at 8 p.m.

The theme for the day revolved around a rivals-come-together message complete with t-shirts, raffle drawings, silent auction, bake sale and chuck-a-puck.

Cancer Shutout stickers helped raise even more awareness and funds as players stuck them on helmets, bags or whatever else they could find.

During one of 38 days of inpatient therapy, Jaela noticed a South St. Paul player who recognized her from a developmental clinic during the summer. The camp helped spread the word about the cancer shutout and the South St. Paul player has a sticker on her helmet.

“You don’t ever lose that wow, factor,” Meister said about the little connections.

Coon Rapids varsity coach Jessica Christopherson was pleased by the support.

“It humbles me that two rival communities put this together for a young kid that is fighting for her life,” she said. “I am so proud of our kids and families for understanding the things that really matter. When you have kids coming to the rink saying ‘we are playing for Jaela today’… that is pretty cool. We can’t underestimate them, they get it.”

With many causes competing for time and attention, Christopherson said helping Jaela took precedent because many Coon Rapids players have played with and against her over the years. “Rival community or not, they are inspired by her. We all are,” she said.

Meister recalled how a nine-year-old Blaine goalie asked everyone coming to her birthday party to donate to the Cancer Shutout, instead of gifts.

That team brought a box full of change with a giant orange poster board with well-wishes signed by the players with their numbers.

Of course, hockey is Jaela’s passion. “She eats, sleeps, breathes hockey,” Meister said. “If it is not going on, there is nothing beyond hockey.”

Before the diagnosis, Jaela played six days a week (eight-12 hours total) at the peak of the season, but played year-round.

Once the family received the diagnosis, Jaela’s first question was about getting back on the ice. She was signed up to compete in the Reebok National Trials, but those plans were put on hold.

“She wasn’t comprehending what was going on,” Meister said. “She’s aware of leukemia but it’s an inconvenience.

Friends and family gather on the plaza at Target Field to show their support for Jaela’s Ultimate Cancer Shutout during one of several benefits.    Submitted photo
Friends and family gather on the plaza at Target Field to show their support for Jaela’s Ultimate Cancer Shutout during one of several benefits. Submitted photo

“We always focus on the fact that its’ temporary and if she can get through this, she’ll be so strong and invincible. She’ll be 16 when this is done and I know she’ll be stronger than most 30-year-olds.”

Jaela was cleared to return to the ice in August, almost four months after the diagnosis.

She and her mother fought to get medical clearance to return to the ice.

Despite being winded the first couple of times back on the ice, Jaela’s chemotherapy symptoms seemed to dissipate while she was on the ice.

She lost 16 pounds of muscle and couldn’t lift her stick or blocker from the start and was devastated. “She thought she would be back to where she left off,” Meister said.

Jaela worked her way back from 17 minutes to 20 minutes and so on, impressing the doctors each step of the way. “They can’t believe she plays at such a high level of competition, given what she’s gone through,” Meister said. “They never have had a kid like this.”

“We had a phrase growing up where we can chose how to respond to a situation. You can only control how much energy to give, you can’t spent a lot of emotional energy.”

Controlling emotions is one way to describe Jaela’s run through the U12A district tournament last spring when she posted a .946 saves percentage making 40-plus saves per game. “It was like a dream for her,” Meister said. “She absolutely stood on her head.”

This is Jaela’s fifth season of playing hockey, third as a goalie, despite Meister’s attempts to redirect attention from the goalie pads. “I did everything possible to say, ‘no’ but she didn’t drop it,” she said after two seasons in the Andover program.

For now, Jaela can’t return to the ice while on chemotherapy treatment cycles because she is on blood thinners, possibly through mid-January.

As a sign of the team-first mentality, Jaela’s teammates wanted to shave their heads. “Jaela said, ‘That’s stupid. Why would you do that. I’m the one with cancer and bald and proud,’” Meister said.

Instead, the Blaine program made tie-blankets and hand delivered them to Children’s Hospital along with toys raised through a drive at Fogerty Arena and Roosevelt Middle School.

Families from other programs have reached out, too. An Anoka family’s daughter and Jaela were on the same elite team and sent Meister and Jaela a Christmas card and donation. “It just left me in tears,” Meister said. “I was so taken back, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I just gave them a big hug Friday. It’s really reinstills the good in people. Life is so busy that we react to the negative [stuff]. People have genuine hearts and it’s been quite the journey so far.”

Checkout cancershutout.com for more information about helping Jaela make the ultimate shutout.

Jason Olson is at
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