It’s a chilly November morning and Derek and Michelle Troy are seated in the top row of the stands at The Edge Ice Arena in Littleton, Colo., watching their daughters play hockey.
The Colorado Selects’ Chill on the Hill tournament is just getting under way, and players and parents are excited for the early-season showdown against other girls’ teams.
Despite the early hour, the crowd is lively inside the north rink as the game winds its way through the second period. Some parents cheer non-stop, while others sit quietly sipping their morning coffee.
The Troy’s youngest daughter, Cassie, is playing in goal for the Colorado Selects 12 & Under team. A shot is lobbed toward her and she quickly drops to her knees as her massive catching glove snares the puck in midflight. She holds on for the whistle as the crowd cheers.
“She just got a new glove,” Derek proudly says.
The save was impressive, as was Cassie’s entire performance in a 4-2 victory, but it is nothing compared to the courageous battle this 11-year-old has waged to not only get back out on the ice but to resume a normal life.
Cassie is like any ordinary sixth grader, spending her days at school, hanging with her friends and playing sports on nights and weekends. Looking at her standing poised between the pipes on this autumn morning, you would never suspect that she was once perilously close to not being here at all.
Last March, doctors discovered that Cassie had a benign brain tumor.
“It started when she was having headaches. We didn’t really know what was happening and they were getting progressively worse,” Michelle recalls.
“We went to the doctor thinking she was having migraines. [She had an] MRI and we found out she had a brain tumor.”
Her surgeon, Dr. Todd Hankinson at Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, diagnosed that the tumor was slow growing and had likely been there for a period of time. With that type of tumor, doctors thought it was better to have it surgically removed rather than subjecting Cassie to grueling rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.
“Obviously, we’d prefer to do that because chemotherapy is not a pleasant experience and can be dangerous,” Hankinson says.
While the surgery went well, Cassie wasn’t out of the woods yet. She had also developed hydrocephalus, which in laymen’s terms means there was too much fluid in her head that put pressure on her brain.
To combat this, the doctors installed a shunt, which drains the excess fluid to relieve the pressure.
During the early stages following her surgery, she didn’t have normal everyday functions that most people take for granted. She couldn’t walk. She couldn’t talk. And she could barely swallow.
She remained in the hospital for a month after the surgery. As the swelling in her brain subsided, she began to regain basic motor skills. But the hard work in rehabbing was just beginning, with her love for hockey serving as motivation.
Like the time she brought her hockey stick into her physical therapy session, playing with a sponge puck.
“She got a few looks,” Michelle recalls. “The nurses said they had never seen anything like it, but they were all for it if that’s what was going to make her better.”
The rehab was long and grueling, but her resolve was nothing short of remarkable. She finally left the hospital in early April, and by the time the hockey season rolled around in September, she was back on the ice with her teammates.
Michelle says they asked the doctors “probably 100 times” if Cassie would be OK to play again, and each time they were given a resounding “yes.”
Often times, the hardest part of coming back from a physical injury is the rebuilding mental confidence that nothing will go wrong. To help Cassie get back into the groove, her parents would take her to public skates. But actually getting back into games took some getting used to.
“I was seeing fear in her eyes for a little bit, but I would say that went away in a month after being around her teammates,” says Phil McCarthy, Cassie’s coach.
McCarthy knows a thing or two about the curves that life can throw you. He was in his 20s when he suffered a stroke. This type of shared experience gave him a unique perspective of what Cassie has gone through to get back on the ice, and he couldn’t be more proud of what she’s done.
“It shows that she didn’t want to lose the thing she was passionate about,” he says. “Sometimes the physical can become mental, and that’s a lot to ask of someone her age. That’s why I was so proud of her.”
Like most 11-year-olds, Cassie clams up around strangers, but she does light up when asked about her favorite part about playing goalie. She loves the thrill of being in the middle of the action, and says that strapping on her pads for the first time following surgery was “exciting.”
And, in that first game back?
“I got a shutout,” she beams.
“It was a pretty big confidence boost for her to come back that way,” adds Derek as Cassie bashfully giggles in the background.
A year and a half removed from the surgery, Cassie continues to make strides toward returning to a normal life, something that Hankinson says is “pretty remarkable.”
She still needs regular check-ups to make sure her shunt is still functioning properly, but other than that she’s just like any normal kid.
A normal kid who faced seemingly insurmountable odds but found the resolve and determination to return to the game she loves.
What kind of advice would she give to any kid out there who was in a similar situation?
“To keep trying,” Cassie says with a big smile.