"Just a nice, normal, beautiful day," said Jeff, a 1988 second-round pick of the New Jersey Devils and now a player-assistant coach with the Missouri Mavericks.
The next day, Ryan came home early from school complaining of headaches. When her mother attempted to wake her a few hours later for a doctor's appointment, the young girl was unresponsive. Ryan was taken to Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., where doctors stabilized her and performed a CAT scan and MRI. While at the hospital, she began to suffer seizures caused by extremely high blood pressure. More tests followed until the answer finally came.
Ryan had a tumor on her adrenal gland that needed to be removed -- immediately. The diagnosis was Pedriatric Adrenalcortical Carcinoma, cancer near her kidney that is considered to be a one-in-a-million case. Today, she is under the care of the renowned physicians at St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis.
Now, 39-year-old Jeff Christian, who has stood up for his teammates in the Devils and Penguins organizations, on teams in Germany and England and across every level of hockey in North America, is standing up for his daughter.
And the hockey community is standing right beside him.
"The support has been incredible," said Christian, who played 18 NHL games with the Devils and Penguins. "When I think of the quality of people I've met through my years in this game, I guess it's not a surprise."
As Ryan undergoes her second cycle of chemotherapy -- the fifth and final dose will be given intravenously on Tuesday -- Jeff and Dorie are her strength while they humbly accept the generosity of their friends and family. On Saturday, the Mavericks' game against Odessa will be one giant fundraiser for the Ryan Christian Love Fund, set up to financially assist the family. As a Central League player, Jeff's medical insurance runs out two weeks after the season.
So many people Jeff and Dorie have met during their life together in hockey have reached out. Among the dozens of items available for auction Saturday is a signed goalie stick from Martin Brodeur. Turns out a staffer at Sher-wood, the equipment manufacturer, heard of Ryan's saga.
Jeff Christian has been in his share of fights in the minor leagues -- he has over 2,000 penalty minutes in his North American hockey career -- but he has made twice as many friends. Last week, Jeff's Mavericks had another rugged battle against the rival Tulsa Oilers, one of his former teams. A few minutes after the game was over, Tulsa general manager Taylor Hall walked down the locker room corridor with a gift. "The boys got together and we raised some money," Hall told Christian. "Our prayers are with you, and we hope this helps."
Jeff's hockey games are usually on the weekends, so he leaves Memphis to re-join his team when he feels it's right. He hasn't had much time to skate or work out while spending his days and nights in St. Jude's, but as he says, "I'm playing on emotion. I've got plenty."
As if by fate, the Mavericks are headed for a first-round playoff series against the Mississippi River Kings. Those games will be just a three-hour drive from the hospital. "And check this out," the 6-2, 210-pound forward said. "A bunch of guys from the River Kings, players I've battled against and will in those playoffs, they've told us their homes are our homes if we ever need anything."
His loyalty to the Mavericks, a first-year expansion team in the Central League, is deep. "They've done so much for us," he said, "that I know we'll never be able to re-pay them." The Mavericks know, however, that if Ryan needs her daddy, family has to come first.
"We want Ryan to know we'll do anything humanly possible to help her through this. She is our girl. She is our life."
If you would like to donate, please make checks payable to the Ryan Christian Love Fund. Donations may be sent to Missouri Mavericks, 19100 E. Valley View Parkway, Independence, MO 64055.