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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Young cancer patients have reason to cheer Vinny

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Published:   |   Updated: November 27, 2013 at 09:31 AM

TAMPA — Stand and cheer.

Vinny Lecavalier is at the Forum tonight, where he made so many goals and points, where he helped win the Stanley Cup banner that hangs from the ceiling.

Stand and cheer tonight as the Lightning do what would ordinarily be unthinkable: honor a Philadelphia Flyer. But it's fitting. As part of the Lightning Community Heroes program, team owner Jeff Vinik will present a $50,000 donation to a charity of Vinny's choosing, to his kind of place, his kind of cause. It's not just about the hockey. It never was.

“Vinny was more than that,” Vinik said. “Vinny was important to this whole community.”

Talk to Will Dewhurst. He's 6. He's from Brandon and is battling leukemia. He'll be at tonight's game. Vinny is Will's guy.

“I like him because he's my buddy,” Will said.

Vinny has buddies all over Tampa Bay. They're his heroes. They have names like Will Dewhurst and Joel Adamski and Lindsey Rose Belcher, names like James Harris and MaKayla Muir. There are so many more. They're all fighters, up against diseases with clinical names that are long and hard to pronounce. “Vinny” is easy to say.

He has touched their lives and they've touched his. The place where they first hang out is on the seventh floor at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg — Vinny's wing.

The Vincent Lecavalier Pediatric Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at ACH is a healing place, a hopeful place, named for a man who hoped to do the right thing.

It goes beyond the money, the $3 million commitment Lecavalier made in 2007 to help build the center, a commitment he intends to honor. It goes the heart of the matter: Vinny's heart.

Will Dewhurst has been coming to All Children's since the day he was diagnosed in December 2010. It also was the day he met Vinny. Will was 3. Vinny was 30. Jill and Bob Dewhurst were with Will on the seventh floor — 7 South, as it's known.

“Vinny was coming around to do his Christmas rounds,” Jill said. “Bob and I had been in tears all day. Our son is 3, it's right before Christmas and this might be our last Christmas with him.

“Vinny comes through the door. Will has no idea who Vinny is. Vinny kneels down to get eye to eye with Will. He hands him a couple of toys … and then he sits there and plays with him for half an hour. Will was so excited to have someone to play with. We'll always love Vinny.”

The cancer wing that Vinny and others helped build has 28 beds — and Vinny has sat on the edge of most of them while talking to children. The rooms are private, with pull-out couches and reclining chairs so families can stay overnight. The TVs are flat screens and the kids can pick up a phone to order ... room service. There's a play room, with a juke box even. Vinny's wing can rock.

“He wanted children to have the best of care in a family setting,” said Genevieve Bale, Vinny's sister and executive director of the Vinny Lecavalier Foundation.

Vinny had cousins who battled cancer. His dad was a firefighter. Yvon and his wife, Christiane, taught their children to give back. On 7 South, Genevieve has volunteered. So have Vinny's folks.

“Vinny has done a fantastic job connecting with these kids,” said Dr. Greg Hale, ACH's medical director of pediatric hematology/oncology. “You can't measure it, and you can't forget it.”

Talk to Gene Adamski, whose 6-year-old, Joel, has leukemia. The first time they met, Joel and Vinny talked soccer and girls. The Adamskis will be at tonight's game.

“I don't think people realize all the good that Vinny has done,” Gene said.

Talk to Channel 13 newscaster Charley Belcher. His daughter Lindsey Rose, who turned 13 this month, was diagnosed with cancer when she was 7. Lindsey Rose has walked the runway with Vinny at a charity fashion show. She'll be at tonight's game.

“Vinny's heart is pure and true,” Charley said.

Talk to James Harris, 10, another battler, leukemia again. James helped cut and shave Vinny's hair at a “Cut for the Cure” charity event.

“Without Vinny, this all would have been harder,” James said. “He took a scary thing and made it not as scary.”

Talk about Vinny with Sylvia Ameen, executive director of the All Children's Hospital Foundation.

“He's a champion for these children,” she said.

Talk to Kristin Maier, ACH director of Child Life. She'll tell you about the young girl who was near the end. Vinny sat with her and her family and spoke to her, softly, then softer.

Talk to MaKayla Muir, 16, an 11th-grader at Alonso High School. She was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer when she was 13. She and Vinny hit it off.

“They played air hockey together,” said MaKayla's mom, Sheri. “It made her feel so special. Vinny became a hero to her.”

Vinny and MaKayla walked together at a charity fashion show. Last July, after Vinny had joined the Flyers, he still remembered to text MaKayla on her 16th birthday, Sweet 16. She'll be at the game.

“He means the world to me,” MaKayla said. “He's just someone I look up to and admire. He's inspired me to give back to the community.”

Talk to Vinny about his heroes.

“When I go to the hospital and meet these kids, they teach you just by being with them,” he said. “Just how strong they are. They've been through so much and they're still smiling.”

Will Dewhurst once found out that Vinny liked golf. Will loves golf.

“Let's play golf,” Will told Vinny.

“OK!” Vinny said.

So they did, sharing a cart.

MaKayla Muir has a horse named Stanley Cup (and a dog named Bolt). Every few months, she helps organize “MaKayla's Hands on Horses,” an equine program designed to improve the quality of life for pediatric cancer patients, survivors and their families. MaKayla wants to give back.

Vinny Lecavalier was a kid himself when he arrived in Tampa all those years ago. Now, he and his wife and three young children. And there's his other family, the one at 7 South.

Stand and cheer tonight. For hockey memories. And for a heart pure and true.

“Vinny made a difference,” MaKayla said.

Here's to their buddy.

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