Bears join fan in fight against cancer

Photo: Leisey Family

📝 by Jesse Liebman | AHL On The Beat

When the Hershey Bears face the Hartford Wolf Pack on Sunday at Giant Center, the box score will simply indicate that it is one of the 72 contests the Bears will play during the 2022-23 regular season.

What you will not find in the box score is the significance of what that night will hold to so many, as the Bears take the ice in lavender jerseys, inside a rink encircled with lavender dasher boards and divided by lavender blue lines. Hershey will host its annual Hockey Fights Cancer Night, allowing players, staff and fans to come together in a united front against the myriad diseases that have touched the lives of many.

For 23-year-old Bears fan Hunter Leisey, Sunday’s game will mark the culmination of all that he has overcome in the course of the past decade: not once, but twice, battling cancer. Throughout his fight, the Bears have been a regular presence for Leisey.

Like many Bears fans throughout Central Pennsylvania, attending home games for the Chocolate and White has been a family affair for the Leisey household, with Hunter growing up as youngster often sitting with his brother, parents and grandparents at Giant Center and, as a toddler, at the old Hersheypark Arena.

“Some of the memories I can remember the most is from 2005-06 when they won the Calder Cup, and when they won on home ice [in 2010],” Hunter said. “I know that was a big deal because that was the first time [for me] ever witnessing the team winning on home ice. That was just something that I always remember every time I look up in the rafters and see the banners.”

Everything changed in August 2012, just before Hunter was set to enter seventh grade and reach his 13th birthday. He began to experience difficulty eating and started to notice bruises on his body.

Preliminary visits to doctors suggested a possible viral infection that had been going around the community; a follow-up visit to his regular doctor prompted some blood work and additional testing. Hunter was initially told he could expect his results in a week.

Within hours, however, it became apparent that he was dealing with something far more sinister, and he and his family were called back into the doctor’s office to be informed that the testing revealed a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia (AML) — a cancer whose origins begin in the body’s bone marrow and typically progresses to the blood of the affected individual.

What followed for Hunter was several months of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant that often left him confined to a hospital room for weeks at a time.

During his time in the hospital, Hunter was visited by several Bears players, including Dany Sabourin, Boyd Kane, Tomas Kundratek and Garrett Mitchell. The presence of some local hockey heroes was a welcome diversion from the exhaustive treatments Hunter was undergoing. Thanks to the efforts of the staff at Hershey Medical Center — along with an outpouring of support from family, friends, the Bears and total strangers from within the Central Pennsylvania community — by early 2013 the cancer was in remission.

When Hunter Leisey was healthy enough to be able to attend a Bears season ticket holder skate-with-the-team event at the start of the 2013-14 season, Mitchell engaged him in conversation, remembering the encounter from several months prior, and the two have continued to remain in contact over the years.

“I think the biggest thing was sitting down and looking at the ice, it felt great to be back in like being able to watch in person,” Hunter said. “You can watch hockey on TV, but it’s not the same as sitting in person and to be able to take in the atmosphere that Hershey has.”

For Hunter, it was a return to normalcy, and after graduating from high school, he eventually enrolled at Penn State Berks, just outside Reading, Pa., where he began pursuing a degree in accounting and joined the school’s club hockey team.

Photo: Leisey Family

However, shortly after the start of the spring semester of his junior year in 2021, he began experiencing bruising and debilitating headaches. That prompted Hunter to see a doctor for an MRI and some additional blood work. The results revealed that the AML had in fact returned.

It was back to Hershey Medical Center, where Hunter once again underwent round after round of rigorous chemotherapy and radiation treatments to eliminate the cancerous cells within his body — but which also left his immune system significantly vulnerable to infection. In May 2021, Hunter received a stem cell transplant, and by the fall, the cancer was back in remission but he was still highly immunocompromised.

While Hunter was receiving treatment, his doctors and nurses reached out to the Bears ahead of the team’s 2021 Hockey Fights Cancer Night to put a plan into action. The team arranged to have Hunter and his family in a suite, surrounded by messages of support and encouragement.

“One of my nurses came in and said how she’s going to the game and everything, and she said she couldn’t wait to see me there, and said, ‘I don’t know what you mean — I can’t be around the crowd,’” Hunter recalled.

“That’s when everyone came in and they held up the Hockey Fights Cancer signs and announced that they made all of these connections to get me in a suite for the Hockey Fights Cancer Night. I was very happy to hear that I could actually get to a game.”

That night last November concluded with his friends surprising him by bidding on Bears forward Beck Malenstyn’s jersey during that evening’s post-game Hockey Fights Cancer jersey auction.

Now, approximately a year after his cancer went into remission for a second time, there’s just one thing left for Hunter to do.

This Sunday, before Hershey and Hartford duel on the ice, the Bears have invited Hunter to participate in the ceremonial pre-game puck drop, something he was unable to do last year because of his immunocompromised state.

“I’ve always thought that was something cool when people come out to drop the puck. It seems surreal to think about it right now, but I’m definitely excited for that moment on Sunday,” Hunter said. “Thinking about just the people in the section I sit in, and knowing them and them knowing my story, it’s definitely going to be emotional for my family.”

The Bears host their annual Hockey Fights Cancer Night game against the Hartford Wolf Pack on Sunday, Nov. 20, at 4:30 p.m. at Giant Center. Click here to purchase tickets for this game.