Every player on the UW-Madison men’s hockey team comes with a particular set of battle wounds: constellations of bumps, bruises, black eyes, scrapes, sores and scars; concussions, sprains, cuts, broken bones and missing teeth that helmets and padding couldn’t prevent. If they’re not collected while the clock is running during a game, they can accumulate quickly when fistfights break out with rival teams.
Badger hockey is not a sport for the docile, but the athletes know that even the grittiest of the bunch is no match for the strength of Lucy Cunningham.
The 6-year-old and the rest of her hockey-loving family are the muse, the inspiration, for the team to make the most of their skills and energy every time they step on the ice rink.
Lucy, who has Down syndrome, was three and a half years old when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow, in August 2012. According to Lucy’s mother, Clarissa, Lucy’s bone marrow was 95 percent cancerous when the illness was discovered. She was given aggressive chemotherapy treatment immediately, suffering serious side effects with every dose.
“Chemo works really well, but [patients with Down syndrome] usually have a lot more side effects that beat them up pretty bad. Lucy had everything you could imagine,” Clarissa said. “She got high blood pressure for a while…there’s been times where she hasn’t eaten, she hasn’t slept, she’s had probably five different allergic reactions to medications. One of them was a full anaphylactic shock.”
A few months after she began chemotherapy, Lucy was very sick and stayed at UW Children’s Hospital for several days. She refused to look at any doctors or nurses, shunned food and had a high fever—she looked “lifeless,” Clarissa recalled.
At one point, the Cunninghams were asked if they wanted to meet members of the Badger hockey team who were participating in Badgers Give Back, the Wisconsin Athletics’ community outreach program. They were thrilled.
“[My husband and I] have been dating since we were 15…and so we would go [to a Badger hockey game] like one time a year as a fun date way back then,” Clarissa said. “The older we got, we would start taking our kids.”
As a result, both of Lucy’s brothers, Kip, 14, and Kade, 11, play hockey. Lucy basically grew up on the ice rink. So when then-Badger hockey players Tyler Barnes and Mark Zengerle strolled into the hospital room clad in their cardinal and white jerseys, Lucy, immediately recognizing their uniforms, donned a huge smile and threw her hands up in the air with joy.
When word of Lucy’s fight against cancer and her family’s love of hockey reached Kayla Gross, the UW Athletics community relations coordinator, she invited the family to a men’s hockey practice and game.
“We were like little kids – my husband all the way down to Lucy. I don’t know who’s the dorkiest,” Clarissa said. “And ‘Luce’ just went right in like she knew the guys, what was going on, and just was really comfortable right away.”
At one point, Lucy and goalkeeper Joel Rumpel, who had never met before, blew kisses to each other during the practice.
Members of the team, including Barnes, Zengerle and later Rumpel, began showing up for every single one of Lucy’s treatments at the children’s hospital, bringing presents with them. As they spent more time with Lucy, watching her progress, the players grew very close with her entire family and discovered newfound motivation to play their hardest when they were on the ice.
“We kind of see how tough and how strong she is and everything she’s been through. It kind of makes us realize our sport isn’t as tough as people think,” Rumpel said. “I just look up to her, how brave and strong she is.”
On Oct. 29, 2014, Lucy completed her final chemotherapy treatment alongside Rumpel. A blood test 15 days later came back negative—Lucy beat cancer.
“To have [Lucy’s blood count] in the normal range—we haven’t been there for half of her life,” Clarissa said. “It’s amazing to be there. I know it’s early yet, but it’s a really great way to start.”
Though Lucy’s chemotherapy is complete, and members of the hockey team close to her go off to play for professional hockey leagues, the Cunninghams’ bond with the Badger hockey team doesn’t seem to be fading anytime soon.
“We keep up on Facebook with everybody … We keep threatening that, as they go on and become famous, we are gonna track them down and watch them,” Clarissa said.
They make sure the team is playing to the family’s high standards, too: When she was being interviewed for this article, Clarissa brought up the team’s 0-6 record, saying she’d love for Lucy to go into their locker room before a game and ask, “Really, dudes? I can beat cancer at six years old with Down syndrome and you guys can’t get a game going?”
Looking back on less lighthearted times, Clarissa believes the hockey team was a driving force in Lucy’s recovery, and the rest of the family’s strength, too. They not only exchanged gifts—they shared courage and resilience.
“There are days where you’re so angry and you’re so sad because you feel like nobody understands where you have been, just like the rest of the world is going on their merry way. Then there are days where people do such special things,” she said. “There are the most wonderful people all over the place and you don’t even know them until you go through something like this.”