BOSTON – She was wearing a surgical mask, but you could tell she was smiling.
Eleven-year-old Laila Anderson, the inspirational Blues fan fighting a rare disease, walked onto a cramped elevator at TD Garden with her mother. It was Wednesday night, about two hours before Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. During the elevator ride, Laila and I chatted briefly, and as she walked off, I said: “Maybe I'll see you on the ice after the game.”
And she replied emphatically: “You WILL.”
Laila knew her Blues would win the Cup that night – even more miraculous, she was there to see it.
“I never doubted the boys,” she said from the ice, following the 4-1 win against the Bruins. “Never. Even when they were in last place, I still thought there was a chance.”
The Blues' own inspirational story has been fueled by Laila, who has befriended Colton Parayko, Alexander Steen, Patrick Maroon and others, as she battles HLH, a rare condition that attacks the immune system. She's had a bone-marrow transplant this past winter and endured chemotherapy. And she still beams with optimism and enthusiasm. She's the coolest kid in town.
“What she has to go through every single day is a lot tougher than what we have to do,” said Maroon, the Blues forward and St. Louis native.
She was confined to her home and the hospital for months this spring. The first time the doctors let her go somewhere, it was to a Blues playoff game. She became an instant celebrity, locally and across the hockey world.
The first time she was allowed to fly? To Game 7 in Boston.
And after the game, on the ice, the champion Parayko skated over with the big chalice and got on one knee, to be on Laila's level.
“Laila called me right after kissing the cup with Colton,” said her father, Scott Anderson, who was on a business trip in Iowa and Minnesota. “On January 18th, Colton visited Laila in the hospital right before All-Star break and during the winning streak. He said to Laila, 'I hope to see you at some games this year.' I said, 'Well, if you make it to the Stanley Cup Final, Laila might be able to go – no pressure.” He said with a big smile, 'I’ll see what we can do.' Fast-forward to last night. ….
“As a parent and hockey fan, it’s hard to describe my emotions and feelings. Seeing (the footage of) Laila kiss the cup and raise with Colton, it's one of the greatest moments of my life – I couldn’t be more proud of Laila. Everything that she has been through these last two years, unbelievable. She is my rock, my hero.”
Scott Anderson is a hockey lifer. He grew up in Minnesota. Said he could skate before he could walk.
“I’ve played hockey my whole life,” he said. “I started taking Laila to Blues games at an early age and she fell in love with it. We started going to games two hours early so she could sit by the bench and give high-fives and knuckle the players as they came out for warmups. It was amazing to sit back and watch.”
On the ice in Boston, Blues players came up to Laila with their cell phones. They wanted selfies with her. Laila's mother, Heather, watched with watery eyes.
During a quiet moment on the ice, I asked Laila: Do you realize how many people you inspire?
“It's slowly sinking in,” said the 11-year-old, who has her own bobblehead coming out. “Coming to Boston, I was a little bit nervous how the fans would react to me, but they actually couldn't be nicer.”
Maroon then spotted Laila.
“Come here, precious!” he said with a wide smile, and the two St. Louis heroes hugged.