LINCOLN — The high school hockey rivalry between Lincoln and Cumberland is beyond intense. Granted, they may compete on the second tier below those battles between perennial state powers Mount St. Charles-Hendricken and/or La Salle, but it doesn't mean the Lions or Clippers care any less about not just defeating but crushing the other.
After all, town bragging rights are at stake. Geez, it runs the gamut from football to basketball, baseball to track, even swimming and lacrosse.
There are moments, however, where all of the competitiveness – to a few student-athletes or players, downright hatred – are put aside, and Thursday proved to be one of those nights.
Icemen and women representing teams from as far away as Cranston East and as close as Cumberland, North Smithfield, La Salle and Johnston/North Providence flocked to Five Guys Burgers & Fries at Lincoln Mall between 5-8 p.m. to pay homage and issue support to one of their own: A Lions' sophomore named Ryan Degnan.
On Nov. 13, according to Degnan himself, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, the third most common cancer in children; it accounts for about eight percent of all childhood cancers, noted the American Cancer Society Web site.
In youngsters up to 14, most lymphomas are non-Hodgkin, with approximately 500 diagnosed in the United States each year. It's approximately two to three times more common in boys than girls, and also in white males as opposed to African-Americans.
The reason for such differences is unknown. Still, the survival rate for those with non-Hodgkin is 90 percent, but that number had nothing to do with Degnan's outlook.
On this evening, he wanted nothing to do with sorting out details of his affliction, but lamenting the fact he'll have to spend this winter hockey season cheering on his teammates, not physically helping them defend their Division II state championship.
“I was diagnosed Nov. 13 at Hasbro Children's Hospital, and I was really surprised,” he stated as hundreds of friends waited in the cold to catch a glimpse of a friend – whether they knew him or not – and grab some food. “I only thought, 'Cancer? That's not me. No way.'
“My parents (Doug and Amy) didn't say much; I think they were in shock, but my first thought was, 'What about hockey?' I've been skating around at practices, but I can't play in games right now because I'm in chemotherapy. Honestly, it makes me mad. It's upsetting because I love the game.
“We were there (at the hospital) that night and went home the next morning,” he added. “When I woke up the next day (at home), I totally forgot about it. It took a couple of minutes before I was, like, 'Oh, wait. This is serious, not just a nightmare.'
“I have a week of chemo, then two weeks off; that's when I go to school. I've had two treatments, and I've got four left. That's because I have lymphoma, meaning it's above and below my abdominal cavity. Still, my first (chemo experience) wasn't painful at all. Just an IV. The second one went the same way. I feel great. It feels like nothing's going on inside me.”
His LHS head coach, Jim Riel, sat at a table taking in the scene, then described his reaction to the news that one of his youngest and brightest stars had developed Stage II NHL.
(Notice the symmetry? His disease's acronym defines the league he someday wishes to reach).
“I found out five days before the first tryout, and that was Nov. 21,” he said softly. “I had heard rumblings, and then his mom called me; she told me he was having some tests done, and that he possibly had lymphoma.
“On a Sunday night before the tryout, she confirmed it,” he continued. “I went from being shocked and sad to … well, it was like a light switch went on. I became motivated, thinking how our hockey team could support him and his family any way we could.
“He hadn't taken the ice for us, but I will say that his No. 6 has been worn by a different player in every single game this season; that player always starts. We're doing that, obviously, because he's still a part of the team. His body can't take the ice with his teammates, but his spirit sure as hell can – and will.”
Riel then related a story about the feisty Degnan, one in which he laughed heartily.
“He started last season as a freshman right winger on the third line; he's a tough little guy,” he grinned. “In one game against St. Raphael/PCD/Wheeler (Co-op) in December, he went into a corner with a kid twice his size, and he came out of it kind of wincing.
“I had no clue what had happened until we told him to take his next shift; that's when he looked at us and said, 'I think there's something wrong with my shoulder.' It was in a very non-chalant way. Later that night, we found out his battle in the corner resulted in a broken collarbone. Looking back at that moment, when he didn't make a sound about being injured, I realized the kid's tough as nails.
“He's a quiet kid, but – boy – is he positive! You could never tell he had broken a bone, just like you can't tell what he's going through now. He's always so upbeat. He got out of the hospital after undergoing chemo one night, went home and called me. The first thing he said: 'Coach, I'll be at practice tomorrow.' It was at 6 a.m.
“That shows you his grit.”
Word spread fast about the Lion's diagnosis, so much so, the Lincoln Hockey Boosters Club – presided over by parents Paul and Karen Jessey – organized a fundraiser at Five Guys.
“They got all the parents and kids together to let everyone know,” Riel noted. “Everyone has been on the same page with the same goal since the first day we found out about Ryan.”
As he talked, hockey players and coaches flooded the front door at the eatery; there were Clippers, Northmen, Thunderbolts, Rams, all there for one reason. They knew that 10 percent of every burger purchase would go to provide financial support to the Degnans.
No wonder why Five Guys had sold 600 in the first hour (5-6 p.m.) alone, and customers continued to stream through its doors; they rarely closed over the next two.
“We had heard about Ryan, (as) some of the kids on our team had played with him with the Woonsocket North Stars,” explained Cumberland senior defenseman Jamie Casilli. “They told us about this, saying the money would go to help with Ryan's treatment.
“I don't really know him, but we definitely wanted to come and lend a hand,” he added. “My reaction was, 'How sad. How awful.' Coach (Mark Andreozzi) told us to go as a team wearing our colors and show support.”
Stated senior teammate Josh Santoro: “I'm happy to be here, and so are all the guys. We want to help out the best we can. I don't know him, but that doesn't matter. He's a hockey player, so he's one of us. You don't want to hear such bad news about anybody.”
Chimed in fellow Clipper junior forward and tri-captain Greg Wellington: “It's tragic, but we're here because everyone said he was a nice kid and a hockey player who loves the sport. They told me had a passion for the game, so you've got to respect that.”
That's when another CHS tri-captain, Jason Donnelly, piped, “This isn't weird. We may not like each other, but we respect Lincoln. Here, it's just a friendly atmosphere, and it's good to see so many people come out to support his family.”
Others clamored to speak up about Degnan's will to live.
“He's a good friend of mine; he told me before Thanksgiving what was going on,” said Lions' sophomore defenseman Will Bray. “I kind of knew something was up because he'd tell me he wasn't feeling that good. When I found out, I was, like, 'You're kidding!' I've known him since middle school.
“But he's so determined,” he added. “When he says he'll beat it, I'm not surprised. He just wants to play hockey. Even now, nothing seems to bother him. He'll tell me about the chemo treatments, and that he's doing fine. He just wants them to be over so he can get back on the ice.”
As for fellow defenseman Ben Hevner, he indicated he's been playing hockey with or against Degnan since they were seven.
“Man, he's gritty out there,” he noted. “He works his butt off every time he's on the ice, and he's pretty good at scoring goals, too. He just never stops. He's also a good friend, a very nice person who always wants to help you out with hockey advice, giving you a ride home from practice, whatever.
“He thinks this (event) is great. He knows it's not just the hockey team that's shown up, but the whole town. I saw kids from all over the place here; it seems like the whole northern Rhode Island hockey community is here to help. It feels great they want to help my teammate.”
Next up was Andrew LaBelle, a sophomore defenseman at North Smithfield.
“I'm his best friend in the world, and I love this kid,” he said as Degnan stood next to him laughing. “We met playing youth hockey with the North Stars, and I wouldn't have missed this, no way. When my father told me about Ryan, the first thing I did was break down, then I called him. I asked if it was true, and he said, 'Yeah.' We talked for over an hour.”
Interrupted Degnan: “I could tell he was really shook up, so it turned out I was the one comforting him!”
When asked if his pal made LaBelle – who trekked to Lincoln Mall with at least 16 teammates – feel better, the Northmen sighed, “Yup! I just love spending time with him. He's a fun kid, and he makes me laugh. We established a friendship long before we got to high school, so it just comes natural now.”
Riel had made the rounds, visiting not only with brother and assistant coach Garrett, but also Lincoln Town Administrator T. Joseph Almond and his wife Alison; LPD Capt. Phil Gould; several police officers; other coaches and players; and families from far and wide.
“This is absolutely incredible,” said Riel, who mentioned Degnan returned from his collarbone injury during the playoffs and contributed to the team's state crown. “Seeing other hockey teams show up, our alumni, families and friends, it just shows how strong and solid our hockey community is in Rhode Island.
“I mean, Cumberland's here, and that's great,” he continued. “You may hate them on the ice, but you love them off it. It's one big hockey family; I'm just speechless … I guess when the parents on the boosters' club said to spread the word, they weren't kidding.”
Obviously, Degnan and his mom and dad were stunned as well.
“I've been told I can skate, but no contact,” the rather small young man with a heart of a Lion confessed. “I know I can't compete, but I'm still a Lion. Why can't I be? I'm still going to practices and games because I want to support my teammates any way I can. It feels worse if I don't go. I still want to be a part of the team, no matter what!”
As for the fete itself, he remarked, “This is insane! This is more than I ever expected. This is where I know who my true friends are, and I guess I've got a lot of them. It feels awesome!”