Sometimes having a wish come true can mean almost more than the most powerful medicine to someone battling a life-threatening disease.
One look at the smile on 14-year-old Luke Rogers’ face the morning of Nov. 14 confirmed that. Rogers said he’s been dreaming his whole life of meeting and skating with his boyhood hero, James van Riemsdyk, of the Philadelphia Flyers. And maybe that fantasy-come-true can supply him with some extra inspiration as the young resident of Marlboro, N.J. battles a disease called Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
Rogers was grinning ear to ear as he joined van Riemsdyk on the ice at the Flyers’ practice facility, the Skate Zone (Voorhees, N.J.) for a 15-minute shoot-around with goaltender Calvin Pickard in the net. The kid’s got some game and perhaps there was a little extra pep in his step because of this opportunity.
Later, after meeting some other Flyers in the locker room, Rogers walked upstairs, met now-former GM Ron Hextall and signed a rather unique one-day contract with the team. Rogers says he has been waiting a long time for this day. He grew up playing on the same rink (originally called Jersey Sports Arena) that JVR played on in his own youth.
As special as the day was for Rogers, it was also an emotional one for JVR, a native of Middletown, N.J.
“Just the excitement that he (Rogers) had for it was pretty cool,’’ van Riemsdyk said after the brief workout. “It’s always great in the situation that we’re in as athletes, being involved in the community and that kind of stuff. For me, it’s even more important because I’m a guy who is relatively local and in a situation like this. He grew up playing in the same rink that I did, so there’s an extra connection there.’’
Making a difference in someone’s life is something all pro athletes can aspire to. Van Riemsdyk is no exception.
“It’s special to have the opportunity to do something like this,’’ he said. “It’s a small thing, but you get to make someone’s day. He gets to go up there, meet ‘Hexy’ and stare him down a little bit.”
That line drew a hearty laugh from assembled media nearby.
Rogers said the time with van Riemsdyk was pretty awesome.
“He was one of my idols, he grew up around me,’’ Rogers said. “It was just fun to get the extra ice time, play with professionals.’’
The young man said he had to give up hockey for a while during treatment and said that absence was the toughest part of the process. The furlough lasted from October, 2015 to January, 2017.
“It really ate away at me,’’ he said. “Hockey is my life. It’s always been my life. When I got back to playing it was the joy of my life.
“That year I couldn’t walk or bathe myself. Then I got the ‘port’ (for intravenous chemotherapy) out and I started playing full contact. Not nearly where I was before, but I’ll get there. My treatment is over in February, 2019.’’
Rogers said his closest friends at school tell him they admire his courage. But the last thing he wants is to be the center of attention. “Like this,’’ he cracked, turning toward several TV cameras.
For that brief time on the ice, Rogers had his favorite Flyer all to himself. Rogers said he and van Riemsdyk talked about the team, how they’re doing, how they practice, etc.
“We talked about how my game can get better, my shot,’’ he said. “He gave me some tips on how to improve my shot.’’
And meeting Hextall was a fairly exciting thing as well.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to do it (a signing) again someday with a professional team,’’ he said. “Maybe this one.’’
Rogers also got to meet Wayne Simmonds and Brian Elliott, but the van Riemsdyk handshake obviously meant the most.
“It’s always cool to see people from your neck of the woods,’’ van Riemsdyk said. “That’s one of the nice things for me, playing in a place that’s relatively close to home. I’m only an hour and a half away from here. Realizing the chance you have to share it with people where you’re from and grew up is pretty cool.’’
To top it off, the Flyers arranged for Rogers to come into the locker room prior to the Nov. 15 home game against the New Jersey Devils and read the starting lineup to the players, and he’ll be back to visit the team Tuesday night, Nov. 27, for the Flyers’ Hockey Fights Cancer Night against the Ottawa Senators.