WILLMAR — After watching first-period action between the Willmar WarHawks and Peoria Mustangs this past Sunday, 11-year old Selena Sundeen was in for a surprise.
Just two days prior, Sundeen, a student at Kennedy Elementary, had successful surgery to remove the majority of a tumor that was spreading across her left cheek.
Healthy enough to take in her favorite sport and team, Sundeen was invited onto the ice during the first intermission under the impression that a game would be played. Instead, while standing at center ice, she was directed to the video screen as the WarHawks players and staff created a tribute video to lend their support. When the video ended, all of the players emerged from the locker room to present Selena with a framed WarHawks jersey autographed all of the players.
“I was really surprised,” Selena said. “It makes me feel good and sad and happy at the same time.
“I feel like I’m not alone.”
“I think this whole thing, what I explained to the players, it was Godsent,” said Sara Carrizales, Selena’s mother and a member of the WarHawks game day operations staff.
At the end of the presentation, the players posed for pictures with Selena and her family before returning back to the locker room. But, it was the expression on her face upon the surprise that stuck with them.
“When she first turned around, she almost looked starstruck,” forward Brandon Holt said. “It felt really good to me, knowing that our presence can bring a person joy with all that she’s going through.”
Forward Eli Slagter added: “Through her tough time, it was nice to see that we could do that for her. Bringing out the jersey to her, it just felt really good to do for someone in that kind of situation.”
In a matter of moments, the team had made an impression that will last Selena for the rest of her life.
“My favorite team is the WarHawks and I don’t really have a favorite player,” Selena said. “After today, all of them are my favorite players.”
“It felt great to hear that from her and her mom telling me that,” forward Marquez Ginger said. “I’m glad she’s a fan of all of us and I’m just glad we could help with the situation.”
Lunch with the WarHawks
On November 13, Selena and Sara visited a local clinic in Willmar when the tumor was first discovered.
“We were told the c-word, and me and Selena had a moment in the car where we were just crying,” Carrizales said. “It was the hardest time, we didn’t know how to wrap our brains around it.”
They both initially intended on heading home to sort things out following the visit to the clinic, but Selena had other ideas. She wanted to go back to school.
On that same day, the WarHawks visited Kennedy Elementary to have lunch with the students. From a morning filled with the lowest of lows, Selena had a chance to spend time with some of her favorite athletes.
“What I explained to the players was what was a normal day for you was the light of her day,” Carrizales said. “She got horrible news, that is going to change her future.
“But, but you guys during this gesture of having lunch with students, it boosted her and changed her whole day. It’s things like that that matter to people; your presence encouraged the students and you’re like big brothers to them.”
Holt was one of the players at that lunch.
“I did briefly meet her, but she was at school so I didn’t want to say anything. It was also a surprise; we didn’t want to bring anything up, we just kind of said hi,” Holt said. “It’s pretty awesome, knowing that all these kids look up to us and they want to be just like us when they are age and play hockey or do extraordinary things.”
“Selena had surgery in November. A biopsy followed, which came back negative. Despite a shot of steroids in her mouth to slow down the growth, the tumor grew back twice as fast and began to spread across the left side of her face. On Friday, Selena had a second surgery in Minneapolis where 98 percent of the tumor was removed.
Selena will be traveling to Minneapolis on a weekly basis for more shots and medication.
“Everyday is different, some days I wake up knowing that everything is OK, and then question is it real?” Carrizales said. “But I have faith. I know that she was the blessing of my life, she was the reason why I continued to live.”
A greater plan
Shortly after the visit to the Willmar clinic, Carrizales and her family reached out to Nate Schueller, the team’s Game Day Operations and Promotions coordinator, to see if the WarHawks could do anything to brighten Selena’s spirits.
The family asked about getting her an autographed hockey stick, but Schueller brought matters to Vice President of Operations Matt Johnson and associate head coach Mike Bowman to see if the team could do more.
The group came up with a framed autographed jersey and the video including all of the players, as well as Carrizales. When it was time for the presentation on Sunday, Schueller was the man with the mic.
“I had a hard time talking my way through it,” Schueller said. “It was pretty tricky and emotional, but we made it through and she was pretty ecstatic.”
The WarHawks went back to action for the second and third periods, falling to Peoria 8-4. The players returned back to practice this week, further developing their skills before traveling to Minneapolis to take on the Missoula Junior Bruins on Sunday, Dec. 15. Hockey remains the focus for these players, but they know seeing how their impact can be far greater.
“I didn’t really expect it, you don’t sign up for it,” Slagter said. “Going to these schools, you walk in and all these kids know your name. It shocks you knowing that all these kids know you; I’ve seen them but didn’t know them.”
Bowman added: “Junior hockey is a great medium for them to get where they want to be, but it also means that they are part of a community. To see Sara and her reaction, not only in the video that we did but on the presentation and how she responded to her daughter’s reaction, it just put everything in perspective. ... It was a good reminder as they are growing up to stay focused on their goals, but pay attention to the daily things that you’re doing that can have an impact on other people.”
As for Sara, Selena and the entire family, it was hard for them to fully express their appreciation.
“It’s been overwhelming, it’s beautiful,” Sara said. “This whole WarHawk thing, I was just in shock. I just don’t know how to respond. It’s just beautiful, it’s amazing.”