TAMPA - She was going to watch the game from her hospital bed. She had packed her eight Lightning shirts in Ziploc bags, so germs couldn't get in. She was supposed to check into All-Children's Hospital on Thursday night to get a bone marrow transplant.
But as blue lights spilled across the ice and an announcer welcomed 22,222 people to the second game of the Stanley Cup final, Casie Snow sat on the edge of a black leather chair in Suite 521 above the St. Pete Times Forum, clapping and shouting and shooting photos of her favorite player: No. 19.
"He's so close when you watch through here," she told her dad, zooming in a digital camera on the far end of the rink. "I've got to get some more pictures for my scrapbook."
Snow had rolled up the sleeves of her gray Lightning T-shirt. She had tied the white bandana that read Richy's Rascals around her bald head. She had rallied this night, fought off the nausea and ignored the shooting pain in her legs. "We've gotta win this one," she said just before the opening faceoff. "I won't be able to come to any of the other games."
Snow is 19. She lives in Pinellas Park with her parents and two brothers. She played softball and was quarterback of Largo High's flag football team. Last spring, 35 days before graduation, she found out she has Leukemia-AML.
She turned 18 in the hospital. She spent months getting chemo. Her waist-length, strawberry blond hair fell out in long curls on her pillow. "It grew back and fell out again four times," she said. "I kept relapsing, having to get more treatments." She had eight surgeries, countless biopsies. She spent 57 days in a row in the hospital. She has three tubes poking out of her chest so doctors can pump medicine through the ports.
Her transplant had to be delayed this week because one of her brothers caught a cold. Doctors want to make sure she doesn't get sick before her surgery. So they postponed her admission until Monday. "That's how I got to come here tonight," she said five minutes into the first period. "This is my last night out for a long, long time."
She will have to spend at least the next four months in an isolated room while doctors try to determine whether the bone marrow from a woman in Europe can save her young life.
"I'll have plenty of time to finish my scrapbook," she said.
Before she got sick, Snow had never paid attention to hockey. She had never heard of Brad Richards. Now, she won't miss a game. Even when she's too sick to sit up, she props pillows behind her back and points the clicker at the TV. She has a Lightning jersey signed by everyone on the team and a bobblehead doll of Richards.
"When I got diagnosed with cancer, my mom took me to the Tampa Children's Cancer Center, and that's how I found out about Richy's Rascals," she said, sipping a Coke. "I've been here for three games. This is really the only place I can go."
Richards, the Lightning's No. 19, joined the team in 2000. Last year, as part of his contract, he purchased a St. Pete Times Forum suite that included 18 season tickets. He established a foundation for children with cancer: Richy's Rascals.
Richards' cousin Jamie died of cancer when he was 8. Richards was 10 at the time, just getting into hockey. "He swore, then, if he ever made it as a pro, he would do something to help other kids with cancer," said his agent, Pat Morris.
Morris won't say how much Richards pays for the suite. But he confirmed that Richards pays for it; it's not a freebie from the team. Each game, Richards invites two or three cancer patients and their families to sit in his suite. He has caterers put out nachos and chicken sticks and bring in plenty of pizza. After the game, he comes up to the suite and meets the kids.
Richards, 24, is single. He doesn't have children. And he doesn't want his foundation to be about just hockey.
Besides the Lightning games, he gives the suite to cancer patients for 10 other events over the year. Snow got to see the Clay Aiken and Kelly Clarkson concert in January. "They let me out of the hospital for that," she said. "I would have had no chance in the world of getting to see that concert - or this game - if it hadn't been for Brad."
Cancer patients aren't supposed to go to the beach or the mall or anywhere large crowds could compromise their immune system. So Richards gives the kids special passes so their parents can park nearby and take a private elevator to the suite. Since September, more than 150 children with cancer have watched Lightning games in Richards' suite. His teammates nominated him for the NHL's King Clancy Award, which honors community service. Merle Trichon, who runs Richy's Rascals, finds the patients through the Pediatric Cancer Foundation and the Children's Cancer Center.
"How you feeling tonight?" she asked Snow after the Lightning scored the first goal.
"Me?" Casie replied, peeling her eyes off the ice. "I'm great now. I'm here."