Flyers remember young fan on Hockey Fights Cancer night

Grande was among those honored by the Philadelphia Flyers during their Hockey Fights Cancer game against the Calgary Flames. The 19-year-old from Springfield, Pennsylvania, died Oct. 12 after an 18-month battle with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare form of soft-tissue cancer.

“AJ would say I wouldn’t want all this attention, but this is great,” said Tricia Grande, AJ’s mother.

Tweet from @NHLFlyers: Getting the boys ready for #HockeyFightsCancer Night presented by @Toyota was AJ Grande’s brother, Cody, who did the honors of reading the starting lineup. 💜🧡 https://t.co/oSUDT7hOwJ pic.twitter.com/j3M7hwEjHD

Flyers Defenseman Travis Sanheim was among those who took part in honoring AJ. Sanheim wore a special HFC-themed lavender No. 11 Flyers jersey with Grande’s name on the back. AJ wore No. 11 on all his sports teams.

After warmups, Sanheim presented the jersey to Tricia and AJ’s younger brother, Cody. The family also spent time with Flyers forward Travis Konecnywho wears No. 11 but didn’t play because of an upper-body injury.

The Flyers also played a video honoring AJ, who would have turned 20 on Nov. 13.

Tweet from @NHLFlyers: The Philadelphia Flyers fight for AJ Grande and AJ’s Army. #HockeyFightsCancer 💜🧡 pic.twitter.com/endjgnBUFX

“A night like tonight touches a lot of people closely,” Konecny ​​said. “It was very difficult to see the pain that a lot of families have to go through in dealing with cancer. It’s such an awful disease. But as far as that video, it looked like there were a lot of proud moments from that family and AJ was such a delight to be around and such a good person. It was nice that there was able to be a little video put together for him.”

Sanheim said he was honored to wear Grande’s name on his jersey.

“Obviously, it was a privilege to wear it,” he said. “I think [Konecny] obviously with being No. 11 was supposed to wear it and when he wasn’t able to dress tonight, they asked me, and it was a pretty quick yes for me to wear that jersey. It was a nice to wear it, nice to meet his family as well. It meant a lot.”

Tricia said AJ was athletic growing up. Baseball and basketball were his best sports; the No. 11 a tribute to former Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who also wore No. 11. But AJ also played ice hockey and roller hockey.

He played third base and pitched at Springfield High School, but the morning after the final game of his senior season, May 19, 2021, he woke up with severe stomach pain.

“I take him to the hospital thinking its appendicitis or something else like that,” Tricia said. “The next day at 5 o’clock pm at Children’s Hospital, I’m told that he has a mass the size of an orange behind his bladder.”

Days later doctors diagnosed AJ with stage 4 Rhabdomyosarcoma, and the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes, lungs and prostate.

“They told us it was a rare form of cancer that affects babies,” Tricia said. “Why it affected my 18-year-old at the time, we’ll never know.”

AJ had 30 doses of radiation along with 40 weeks of chemotherapy beginning June 10, 2021.

By August, doctors had seen the tumor shrink by 50 percent. By Jan. 2022, doctors said the tumor had shrunk even more and that there were no traces of metastatic cancer.

On March 25, AJ got to ring a ceremonial bell marking the end of his cancer treatments.

“We had a five-year plan because the survival rate for Rhabdomyosarcoma is five years,” Tricia said. “So off we were, trying to get ready to start life over again. He did 25 weeks of [physical therapy] to get stronger, he was eating, gained all his weight back, he was playing basketball, playing baseball, out with his friends, enjoying life.”

On June 21, AJ was awarded a $5,000 college scholarship from Flyers Charities through Michael’s Way, a charity that helps support families dealing with pediatric cancer. He was majoring in communications/marketing at Penn State Brandywine.

John Tortorella, who had been hired as Flyers coach days earlier, surprised the award recipients with their scholarships on a video call.

Not long after, though, scans showed AJ’s cancer had returned, and this time the tumor was in his pancreas.

The Flyers learned of AJ’s cancer returning and Flyers Charities executive director Cindy Stutman said she and her staff did their best to stay in contact with the family.

“It’s heartbreaking,” Stutman said. “We have just given this young kid a scholarship who was going to start college. So, ‘Torts’ and Travis Konecny ​​both sent AJ videos just to let him know we were thinking about him, continue to fight, we’re all behind him We sent him a team-signed jersey just to try to lift his spirits.”

After a family vacation to San Diego, AJ restarted his treatments. Then on Sept. 6 a tumor on AJ’s spinal cord left him paralyzed.

Doctors told the family that radiation possibly could shrink the tumor and allow AJ to walk again, but there was no guarantee it would work.

Instead, he entered hospice care and spent his final weeks watching television with his family and friends.

He also would talk about the Flyers with Cody, who is a year younger. AJ had bought a half-season ticket package for Flyers games last season, and the brothers would go to games together when AJ felt healthy enough.

That’s why the night after AJ died, Cody was at the Flyers’ season-opening 5-2 win against the New Jersey Devils, wearing AJ’s Flyers-signed jersey.

“He said ‘Mom, do you think I can go to the Flyers game on the 13th?’ And I said, ‘Go,'” Tricia said. “‘AJ would want you to go.'”

Cody and some friends got tickets, and Stutman and her staff greeted them at the game and made sure Cody had as enjoyable a night as possible.

“They were there to support him and that meant everything to me,” Tricia said. “That everything I’m going through and his younger brother di lui, that we were still family. That was important to us; family is everything. And this was family still.”

The Flyers will take one more moment to treat AJ as family, as well as others affected by cancer.

“A year ago, AJ went to a Flyers game,” Tricia said. “He was feeling good, and it was Hockey Fights Cancer night. So, for us to come full circle again, to honor my son, is a moment I’ll never forget.

“How am I going to feel about this? Of course, I’ll be heartbroken that he’s not here. But he’ll be with all of us in spirit and watching over us.”

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