ELK RIVER, Minn. - On hockey night in Elk River, fans lit up the ice for a player making his first varsity start.
For Nate Gfroerer, a junior on the JV team, his first varsity start would also be his last.
“So I'm really nervous for tonight. It's pretty cool though that I get to play my first game on varsity,” he said before the game.
Nate’s hockey career is being cut short by Leukemia.
“Nate's going through something that no kid his age should have to go through. And he's been doing it with a great attitude,” said his coach Ben Gustafson.
Next week, Nate will undergo a bone marrow transplant. But Wednesday night he had only one worry – and it wasn’t cancer.
“Just trying to save as many pucks as I can,” he said.
Nate told his coaches that his season would be ending in February a few months back. But he kept it a secret from his teammates until recently. When they learned the news, the team decided to make this night special.
Though Elk River’s colors are red, black and white, the rink was awash in orange, the color of leukemia awareness. Proceeds went to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. After the first goal, fans threw teddy bears onto the ice to donate to a children’s hospital.
When Nate’s name was announced in the starting lineup, the crowd erupted in cheers.
“He deserves this,” said Gustafson. "His teammates are really excited to play in front of him.”
Nate’s mom and sisters beamed with pride. His older sister, Katelyn, will be his bone marrow donor.
“I’m just super excited for him that he can actually feel the support that he has from his team,” said his mom Karen Gfroerer. She added that it lets her son know he is not alone.
“He's kept so much of it inside, didn't share it with anyone until just recently,” she said.
Karen said her son’s prognosis is good with the transplant. They have faith he’ll be just fine.
For Nate, the rink has been a refuge.
“Hockey just makes it all better kind of. It just goes away when I'm playing hockey. It's all normal again,” he said.
He’s been playing hockey since he was three years old, always wanting to one day play varsity. Thursday night it happened. Nate took it in one final time.
“I'm just trying to leave everything out there,” he said.
With a team and a community behind him, cancer doesn’t stand a chance.