To a man, the Boston Bruins would probably tell you there isn’t anyone on their team tougher than 8-year-old Liam Fitzgerald.
Liam is the boy seen on the above viral video shot before Tuesday night’s 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers. Liam fist-bumped the Bruins as they skated off the ice after their pre-game warmups. The clip of his pure sports joy has more than 168,000 views on You Tube.
What makes Liam, who has Down syndrome, so tough? Well, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia at age 4. He defeated his cancer in the same way the Bruins took care of business in 2011. It wasn’t easy and it took a while – 3 ˝ years in Liam’s case – but he eventually triumphed.
The Bruins and Red Sox have given Liam some special memories in recent years. He visited Fenway Park this past summer as a guest of Clay Buchholz, and joined Buchholz and company at the annual Buchholz Bowl held on July 31.
But it is the Bruins who are Liam’s true sports love. He dressed up as Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid in Halloween 2013. McQuaid eventually learned of Liam’s love for the Bruins. With some help from the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress, which partners with the Bruins Foundation for an annual charity fundraiser, Liam and his family were the guests of McQuaid at a Bruins game last February. He met with Milan Lucic, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and now-former Bruins Johnny Boychuk and Shawn Thornton.
On Tuesday, he was back the Garden.
Hockey players, conventional wisdom tells us, are usually the nicest, most-accommodating and most down-to-earth pro athletes when dealing with the public and media. Those endless trips to the arena at 5 a.m. as kids, and thousands of miles spent on buses across the hinterlands of Canada, probably have something to do with that truism.
“It not the attention, it’s the smile they bring to his face,” his mom, Christine Fitzgerald, told the OBF Column on Thursday. “I watch what [the Bruins] do at Children’s Hospital. The athletes take the gift they have of their fame down to a personal level. It goes beyond their hockey skill set and shows they are human. Giving back. Sharing their gift with others.”
Hockey itself is a sport that embraces toughness. It is not a game for those who are soft, either physically or mentally.
Liam’s toughness is self-evident once you learn of his past medical history and current challenges. Those will soon include daily injections of growth-hormone until at least his 18th birthday.
“It amazes me, given what he’s gone through in his eight years of living. He just goes on. Soon, he will start growth hormones every day. It doesn’t phase him. He just goes on.”
“People tell us he’s so cute, and this and that. He was given to us to raise and given to the world to love. He brings joy to people. There’s something about him that draws people him. His smile, his personality. He’s just such a joyful person. He’s taught us a lot about life,” Christine Fitzgerald said.
Before the game Tuesday, Liam was given a seat next to the bench. His affection for the Bruins, and their and their affection toward Liam, did the rest. Liam and Bergeron also had their own mini-reunion.
Liam, his mom said, likes to “interview” the players whenever he gets the opportunity. “His favorite question of the players is: ‘What are the keys to the game?’ That’s probably what he asked Bergeron,” Christine Fitzgerald said.
Liam’s radiant affection for hockey and his favorite hockey team is self-evident and captivating to anyone who watches that video. It is nearly inhumane not to be touched by his innocence, and the Bruins’ willingness to make sure they acknowledged his presence and interacted with one of their most devout fans.
“I can tell you they are the nicest group of guys,” Christine Fitzgerald said of the Bruins. “The fact that they are these big, tough hockey players who take the time to talk to him. He just beams from ear to ear. It makes you love that team even more.”
Where some seek the spotlight, Liam is often found by it. He was the “Fan of the Game” Tuesday after the camera operators at the Garden spotted him walking in early. He began dancing, blowing kisses and waving at himself on the Garden’s Jumbotron. He won the voting for the “Fan of the Game” award in a landslide.
Liam is a second-grader at Zeh Elementary School in Northboro. He follows the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins. He’ll watch as many games as his parents allow, always choosing sports over cartoons or movies. His mornings are spent watching highlights on his iPad.
Hockey is his favorite sport, hands down, thanks in part to endless knee-hockey games played with his older brother and his friends. “He wishes he could skate,” Christine Fitzgerald said.
The Bruins invited Liam and his family back earlier this season, but scheduling conflicts would not permit it. When Christine found out Tuesday’s game against the Panthers, and Thornton, was an option, she and her family happy accepted the team’s invitation.
Liam is small physically for his age. But his heart, as Dr. Seuss once said, “grows three sizes” each day.
“He’s so small and cute,” his mom said. “He recognizes the players. But he’s not a three-year-old. He knows who these guys are, their positions. He understands the game.”
The OBF column is written by award-winning journalist and Bay State native Bill Speros. Bill has written and reported for ESPN, CBSSports.Com and was a sports/deputy sports editor at several metro daily newspapers. Reach Bill on the OBF Facebook page, on Twitter @realOBF or at his
OBF email Address. Thanks always for reading.
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