MILFORD — When Massachusetts temporarily froze out youth hockey again last week by closing ice rinks, Hunter Letendre, a 9-year-old goalie for the Central Mass Outlaws, was very sad.
He plays hockey all year, for a couple of teams. Hunter’s father, Kevin, a retired Army medic who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, says, “Hockey is his life. That’s the only thing I’ve found since he was little that he doesn’t get mad and freak out with. He just has fun."
But instead of being bummed out by the latest COVID-19 setback, Hunter is determined to make a difference.
In full hockey gear, he goes out to his side yard and makes save after save on his father’s slapshots. After a while, a smile cracks his face because he knows that each save counts in the fight against a horrible opponent: breast cancer.
He’s part of a nationwide challenge called “October Saves” in which hockey goalies at every level collect pledges toward the number of saves they make in the month. The funds support breast cancer research. This year, the Family Reach COVID-19 Emergency Fund and the Pink Fund’s COVID-19 Real Help Fund also have been designated to receive donations.
Because of the pandemic, the current campaign allows hockey goalies to participate however they can, whether it’s in a game, in a driveway, in a basement, or even online in a video game.
For the Letendres, fighting for a cure is personal. Breast cancer has struck on both sides of the family.
It claimed the life of Kevin’s grandmother when he was a teen. His wife, Whitney, lost her mother to the disease when Hunter was just 4. Then last November, Whitney was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Whitney had surgery in January, and Hunter tried to put on a brave face. He was determined to help however he could.
Hugs are important,” he says. “I said, ‘I love you.’ ”
But he still couldn’t focus or sleep. He had bad dreams and acted out.
“I was worried if she was going to be OK,” says Hunter.
COVID-19 complicates and disrupts everything in its path, even cancer. When the pandemic struck in March, it delayed his mother’s radiation treatments. To make matters worse, Hunter, who has attention issues and was adopted from an abusive home, lost his only outlet for relief from stress: hockey.
“It has been a lot, a long 6-7 months now, between COVID, the radiation," says Kevin Letendre. “Her immune system was compromised and everything else.”
The Army veteran who was once buried in a pile of concrete when a mortar round exploded in Baghdad never flinched.
He took care of his wife and the four children and started a graphics company. He even air-brushed pink “October Saves” goalie masks for himself and Hunter that say “Cure” on the side.
But the masks didn’t get much use. When the rinks reopened for hockey, Hunter’s coach tested positive for COVID-19 and his team was shut down for two weeks. None of the kids on the team tested positive, but they came back rusty. In his last game, Hunter made 88 saves out of 102 chances. Then came the two-week mandated shutdown from the state.
Letendre thought the ban was unwarranted.
“I personally think the teams that had tournaments that cause the outbreaks should be fined and not have everyone penalized,” he says. “Fifty thousand kids in Mass., and 200 might have gotten COVID from hockey.”
Letendre, who has long been a supporter of breast cancer fund-raisers, says it’s harder to raise money this year. Last year, everyone had the pink sticks, the pink tape, and the posters up at the rink.
“People are just forgetting about hockey this year,” he says. “It’s hard. You can’t really go to the Stop & Shop like we did last year and collect money in a jar.”
Lara Hopewell, CEO of October Saves and a breast cancer survivor with two young goalies, says that since 2014, children primarily ages 6-18 have currently raised $1.5 million. But COVID-19 has caused “a bump in the road” this year, she says.
She cites the amazing persistence of kids like Hunter for stepping up to save the campaign.
“I am stunned, to be honest," she says. "I am so intensely proud of these kids that aren’t letting this stop them. They’re doing it for their grandmothers and their moms and teachers.
"The Goalie Nation is strong; you can tell just by the position that they chose. They’re a resilient bunch. I mean, people shoot pucks at their heads.”
Meanwhile, the latest tests for Whitney have been all clear. She has returned to work as an optician, and Hunter plays every shot in the yard as if it’s the Stanley Cup Final. “I was worried if she was going to be OK,” he says. “My mom had breast cancer but she’s better now and I feel happy. It makes me happy for all the people that have breast cancer.”
*Article courtesy of the Boston Globe and written byStan Grossfeld
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