By Alan Bass
Just before Christmas 2009, two-year-old Duncan Mitcheltree was diagnosed with Wilms’ tumor, a cancer of the kidneys that occurs more often in children than adults. After surgery, in which his appendix and right kidney were removed, he travelled to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for six rounds of radiation before six months of chemotherapy. While there, his father, Eric, treated him to a Flyers game, sparking a burning passion for hockey in his young son.
More than two years after completing his treatment and showing signs of recovery, Duncan has experienced some incredible events, including watching Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup final from Danny Briere’s private box. But the experience of being “drafted” by the Muhlenberg College Div. II hockey team tops the charts.
With the help of Team Impact, a non- profit organization that matches children to college athletic programs to provide support outside of their family and medical team, Duncan attends almost every Muhlenberg Mules home game and shows up for practice every few weeks. “What a lot of people do not understand is the deeper impact of cancer in children,” Eric said. “The side effects are not only physical and not always visible. But since he was officially ‘drafted,’ Duncan has come out of his shell a lot.”
This was apparent during a Muhlenberg home game against Princeton University in mid-November. Before the game, Eric asked Duncan, five, who his favorite player was. Duncan looked up with a smile and said, “No. 8.” That’s alternate captain Alex Busa, who has taken a shining to the Mitcheltrees. Busa always looked forward to seeing Duncan in the stands on Friday nights, in his Muhlenberg jersey, cheering excitedly for his “hockey boys,” as Duncan calls them.
As the game progressed, it was clear Busa had a driving inspiration behind his performance, culminating in a hat trick that propelled Muhlenberg to a 5-4 victory over its division rival. But the biggest sign of his leadership came when the clock hit zero. As he skated off the ice, he opened his glove to show the game puck, a gift to his biggest fan.
“This whole experience is about special bonds that are built in the hockey rink,” Busa said. “I thought giving Duncan the puck symbolized just that.”
Although Team Impact is built to help give support to children, this scenario is helping Muhlenberg as well.
“Duncan’s journey has given our team strength and we want to give him another form of family and support,” Busa said. “This experience has been great. I am eager for the team to continue our relationship with him.”
And so does Duncan, as he continues to cheer on the Mules. “He loves his hockey boys and gets very upset when we can’t make it to games,” Eric said. “He still talks about being on the ice with them and constantly asks to skate with them again.”