On the day before Thanksgiving, Ryan Clevenger, a 6-year-old fledgling hockey player from Alaska, was complaining about persistent headaches that kept getting worse.
By nightfall, he’d been medevaced nearly 1,500 miles to Seattle Children’s Hospital after X-rays located a grapefruit-sized benign tumor growing on the right side of his brain. After a 9 1/2-hour surgery to remove the tumor on Nov. 28 left him unable to feel the left side of his body, he’s spent the past month slowly regaining movement and partially reopening an eye that had completely shut.
To boost his spirits, his family surprised him on Christmas weekend with the gift of a Kraken jersey with his name on it as well as tickets to Friday night’s game — his first NHL contest in-person — at Climate Pledge Arena against the Edmonton Oilers. And earlier that day, in his first journey outside the hospital since his ordeal began, the wheelchair-bound boy attended the team’s morning skate at the Kraken Community Iceplex and got to meet afterward with forward Ryan Donato and goaltender Martin Jones.
“I asked him if he’d score a goal tonight,” young Ryan said of his extended rinkside conversation with Donato that left the youngster giddy with excitement. “I told him he should try to be just like (NHL scoring leader) Connor McDavid.”
Ryan had started playing hockey for a Learn to Play team in Anchorage after growing up in a family that loved the sport. His favorite team had been the Chicago Blackhawks until the Kraken began play last year and he also counts the Vegas Golden Knights as his No. 3 choice.
For players, Donato always was his top choice because of their shared first name. He also enjoyed watching from his hospital bed on Wednesday night as Donato scored a “top shelf” goal up high in the net against Calgary.
“I told him to go top-cheese again,” he said. “He scores top-cheese because it’s a Ryan thing.”
A few minutes after Donato left, Kraken goalie Jones appeared and handed Ryan a stick to keep. He squirmed with delight, his little legs kicking up in the wheelchair.
“Knowing he was going to do this has been a real morale boost for him this past week,” said his grandfather, Scott Pfeifer, part of the family group that’s been staying in a Seattle hotel ever since the surgery. “They said the tumor he had was the biggest they’ve ever seen at the hospital. They had to cut it out in pieces.”
His mother, Nina Carter, clutching her 4-month-old son, Caden, said the ordeal has been exhausting for everybody, but the outcome better than initially feared. “They didn’t know whether they’d even get the surgery done in time,” she said.
She and her husband, Cameron Carter — Ryan’s stepfather — had brought the child to the hospital in Anchorage when his headaches wouldn’t cease. Once they saw what was happening on X-rays, doctors knew immediately that surgery was needed to relieve the pressure on young Ryan’s brain.
But the closest place to get such a surgery was in Seattle.
“They said, ‘You’re going now,’” Carter said.
They were flown here that day and the surgery took place a few days later after required testing. He’ll remain at the hospital another few days before returning to Alaska.
At first, post-surgery, he couldn’t move anything from head to toe on his left side. Then, slowly, after weeks of rehabilitation, the movement began coming back.
He recently started walking again with help from a walker.
“We’re hoping it all comes back,” his mother said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
And for now, time outside of the hospital is precious. His doctors had to debate whether to even allow Ryan to attend the game, finally agreeing to it Thursday night.
Which meant Friday quickly became a day he won’t soon forget and can’t wait to tell his fellow first graders about once he returns home. Attending the morning practice was a thrill all on its own for Ryan, who had never seen live NHL players.
But he never counted on his stepfather phoning up the Kraken and arranging to have players stop by afterward to meet him.
“This was great,” he said.