SAINT PAUL, Minn. — The Chisago Lakes High School hockey team took the ice in the state boys hockey tournament for the first time in 19 years.
How it happened isn't a secret. Ask anyone in the stands at the Xcel Energy Center, and they will say the Wildcats had a lot of help from heaven.
The team played in memory of Zac Bartz, the younger brother of sophomore player Nic Bartz. Zac was the team's biggest fan despite battling cancer for most of his short life. He died last November, at age 11, the day before the first game of the season.
"I've thought about it all day already today. Just the last couple days, it's really hard because he should be here," said Carol Ann Bartz, his mother, through tears.
Zac hoped to one day be a Wildcat player, following in the footsteps of his big brother, Nic Bartz, #4. A disease called neurofibromatosis came first, leaving several tumors in his brain. Still, Zac attended every game, cheering without a complaint and teaching athletes the true meaning of strength.
"He would go in the locker room give them a pep talk saying you can't give up. That's what he wanted us to know, you can't give up even if it's hard," said Liz Rich, a high school student and family friend.
"If there is one word that describes this team, it's inspired," said Kim Gibson, an assistant coach and wife of the Chisago Lakes Wildcats Head coach. "He touched everybody that ever met him, extremely motivational so they just adopted him, it just stayed. It stuck."
As the team faced New Prague Wednesday, they draped Zach's jersey over their bench, and touched his jersey before taking the ice. Signs with Zac's smile waved in the stands.
"It's not by chance we are supposed to be here, Zac has some kind of hand into it," said Carol Ann.
Chisago Lakes lost to New Prague 5 to 2, but it doesn't matter the score. The stands already show a season heaven sent.
"They are making him a part of their team. That makes me feel so happy because he is here in one more way," said Carol Ann. "A little bit more of a miracle."
Neurofibromatosis is a genetic congenital disorder that creates tumors of the central nervous system and the peripheral nerves. More than 80,000 people live with NF throughout the United States,
The University of Minnesota Foundation has created a research fund for this rare type of cancer. Click here to learn more or donate.