The Whitby Wildcats AAA Atom Hockey Team made me an honorary member. My best friend is the middle guy holding the team jersey they gave me. This was the story that was put in the local newspaper about me. They are all a great bunch of guys who made me and my family smile when we really needed it.
WHITBY -- The Whitby Atom AAA Wildcats did so much more than reach the OMHA final this season, and left the ice as winners despite losing by a goal.
The team has learned important lessons off the ice as much as on, and has played a large role in the recovery of Andrew Vermeulen, a friend of many of the players who suffered a stroke in late-February.
Andrew still faces an operation in a couple of months, but his health has improved immensely and the spirits of the whole family has been lifted by the team, which made him an honorary member.
A seemingly healthy 10-year-old boy who attends Captain Michael VandenBos Public School in Whitby, Andrew had been playing at his best friend Keegan Price's house when he began to complain of a funny feeling in his left arm and pain in his head.
Keegan's father, Craig, a Toronto firefighter, recognized the symptoms quickly and called an ambulance, which took Andrew to Lakeridge Health Oshawa where a massive brain hemorrhage was revealed. He was transported to the Hospital for Sick Children, and lifesaving neurosurgery was performed.
Andrew has since been sent to the Bloorview Rehabilitation Centre, and is expected home May 13, but still requires surgery for an arteriovenous vascular malformation in his brain.
The team, which includes Keegan, has been with the family every step of the way, signing a get-well card and team jersey, making Andrew an honorary member during their OMHA run and helping create an in-trust account to help the family with their expenses.
"They've seen a lot, they've done a lot in a year," said manager Dave Macpherson, pointing out that the team has also helped food banks at Christmas, been to a trip in Chicago and won a tournament in Kitchener. "They're a close knit group."
Andrew is not much of a hockey player himself, but his rehab is going so well that he has started to run, play basketball, swing a bat, play catch and do other activities he used to be able to do. He knows there will be no baseball this year and probably no sports for quite awhile, but is looking forward to coming home to his parents Nadine and Grant and brother Reid.
The team's coach, Justin Collins, read a touching note of gratitude from the Vermeulen family prior to their OMHA championship game, which ended in a 4-3 loss to the Quinte Red Devils.
Despite the heartbreaking finish, none would argue about the overall success of the team this season.
"It's more than just playing hockey," Macpherson pointed out. "You've got to teach these kids what their doing in the community. They're representing Whitby and minor hockey and they're also representing themselves and their families."