‘Surreal’: Hockey player and cancer survivor drop puck during Bears game

When Hunter Leisey dropped the puck to start the Hershey Bears game on Sunday, it marked a big step in two important personal battles.

The first is Leisey’s quest to become the best hockey player possible, an endeavor he has undertaken since he learned to skate around the age of five. The second is his battle with leukemia, which he has defeated twice so far in his young life.

“I always thought it would be cool to do it, but I never thought I would drop a puck in a Bears game, or any game for that matter,” Leisey said. , 23, whose family has held Bears season tickets since he was a child.

“It’s definitely surreal to come out and drop it myself,” said Leisey, who also spent the game’s warm-up period on the Bears’ bench, watching the players do their pre-game drills. .

Her first takeaway – “guys are a lot bigger when you’re right next to them.”

“In your stands, you look at the guys and you’re like ‘they’re pretty big’, but when you go out on the ice and they’re right next to you, there are big guys there,” said Leisey points out.

Leisey was the guest of honor Sunday at the Bears’ annual Hockey Fights Cancer game, the culmination of Leisey’s long relationship with the sport he loves and the illness that twice disrupted his life.

Leisey was first diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia as a child in 2012, eventually undergoing a bone marrow transplant which is believed to have cleared the cancer.

But almost two years ago, in January 2021, the disease returned. Leisey underwent another series of grueling treatments, including a stem cell transplant that wiped out his body’s immune system, confining him to a hospital room for more than 70 days.

Leisey was also honored at last year’s Bears cancer charity game, but had to watch from a suite the team had set up for him, as his weakened immune system made it extremely risky to even do so. to get through the stadium crowd.

Still a competitive hockey player – having learned from his father, Randy – Leisey came out of isolation after losing around 50-60 pounds. For such a physical game, the loss of body mass is a major hurdle, and “it’s definitely different now when I’m going to hit somebody on the ice,” Leisey said.

“It’s really hard to come back now,” Leisey said of his physical power. “But I feel better every time I hit the ice. I have to pass this year and I hope to come back next year and be stronger.

Originally from Adamstown in Lancaster County, Leisey plays hockey at Penn State Berks, where he studies accounting. After taking a year off for his treatment, he is now a senior, but expects to attend for a fifth year to earn his CPA qualification.

“Seeing them definitely motivates me to keep doing what I’m doing, to get better to keep playing hockey, to keep studying, to get better every day,” Leisey said of Bears games.

“I can’t complain about being back at school to play hockey, I’ve regained my strength,” he continued. “It’s going to take time, but I certainly can’t complain about where I am, compared to where I was.”

While in the hospital, Leisey was visited by Bears players, some of whom he remains friends with and who also formed a support network for his family.

“It meant so much to be in the hospital for so long, to have them come,” Randy Leisey said.

Leisey strives to give back to those who help cancer patients and their families, and is now part of the Berks Benefitting THON leadership group at Penn State.

There’s a long list of those Leisey can attribute to his recovery: his family, his bone marrow and stem cell donors, with whom the Leisey family has remained close, the hospital staff – and the Bears. But through it all, hockey is a dominant and constant theme in his life.

“It gave me something to work on and I knew that was what I wanted to do when I got back to being myself,” Leisey said.

“Everything helped a little bit,” he said. “sometimes it was family, sometimes it was the idea of ​​getting back to normal and playing hockey.”

Catherine J. Martinez