The Oilers paid tribute on Thursday to Ben Stelter, the courageous six-year-old from whom they drew inspiration during their run in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Edmonton youth died Tuesday night of glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer, after fighting the disease for 18 months.
“The world lost the most special boy and an absolute hero,” his father, Mike, posted on Twitter. “Our hearts are left with a Ben-sized hole in them and life will never be the same without you.”
Diagnosed in March of 2021, he underwent surgery, chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiation. The team rallied around him as soon as it became aware of his illness, and no Oilers player was closer to him than Connor McDavid.
“He had such an impact on myself in the short time we knew him,” Edmonton’s superstar centre said during a video call with journalists. “He was so strong, so brave, such a fighter. This is just an awful day.”
A huge fan of Edmonton – and especially of McDavid – Ben skated with the team before a game against San Jose in March and lined up beside his hero during the national anthems. He also participated in a morning skate – dressing beside McDavid in the Oilers’ locker room – and appeared with Zach Hyman at a postgame news conference.
“Some players are nervous but he wasn’t nervous at all,” Hyman said. “He was excited to go on stage. I remember somebody asked him who his favourite player was and he looked at me and then said, ‘McDavid.’ ”
Despite his illness, the youngster attended as many Oilers home games as possible. Fans roared every time he was shown on the video screen at Rogers Place. At one point, the team won 10 successive games when he was on hand.
He would wait alongside the tunnel that leads from the dressing room to the ice and give players fist-bumps as they passed.
“Over the last few months I was greatly impressed by the courage of a young man who defined what a bright light is,” said Jay Woodcroft, the Edmonton coach. “I know his spirit is going to live on throughout the team. That is for sure.
“I’m thankful to have gotten to know him.”
During the playoffs, the Oilers appointed him an official team ambassador and McDavid gave him a trading card designed for him. Opposing teams let Ben know that they were rooting for him – even if he was rooting against them.
Tributes have poured in for him from the NHL, the Calgary Flames, New Jersey Devils, former Edmonton player Georges Laraque and many others.
Evander Kane, the Oilers forward, mourned him on Wednesday in a post on social media.
“Ben, you’re a true warrior and are such a inspiration to all of us,” Kane said. “Your strength, determination, courage and love beamed through the hockey world and especially our team. I’m going to miss your fist pumps before the games. To the Stelter family, we send our love and support.”
McDavid said he met Ben for the first time in September of 2021.
“I fell in love with him and the family immediately,” he said. “He meant so much to myself and to all my teammates. He was a really amazing little guy who lit up every room he walked into.”
McDavid said it is too soon to consider what the organization might do to celebrate his life.
“You would not have known what he had gone through by meeting him,” Hyman said. “He always had a smile on his face. He is going to be greatly missed.
“What he went through puts everything into perspective.”