Christopher “CJ’’ Thomas George Jr. went to his first Florida Panthers hockey game when he was 9 and immediately wanted to play.
But because he had lymphoma, a blood cancer that attacks the immune system, playing was not an option.
“I remember just being there and not really understanding the rules of the sport but just watching them skate and watching the way the game was played,” he said. “I just thought it was amazing and I told myself when I’m off of treatment, I’m going to try this sport.”
On Tuesday, CJ stepped onto a custom hockey rink in the backyard of his Miami Lakes home. He played hockey with his two brothers, Brett, 12, and Corey, 7.
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“It’s amazing,” he said. “It’s really just a dream come true.”
Make-A-Wish Southern Florida, an organization that grants wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions, constructed the rink after CJ relayed his love for the sport, and the difficulties of getting ice time at the local rinks. The 18-by-34-feet rink is made out of a synthetic, self-lubricating surface, allowing CJ to use real ice skates and for it to withstand South Florida’s heat, said Richard Kelly, executive vice president at Make-A-Wish Southern Florida.
Along with the rink, CJ received a new hockey stick, gloves and a helmet.
“When I first made the wish, I was thinking I can’t even picture that happening,” CJ said. “But being out here now, it’s real.”
Kelly said the Make-A-Wish team worked with CJ throughout the project to ensure he was involved in the process.
“We’ve never done a wish like this where we constructed a rink or any sort of a sporting field or court in anybody’s backyard,” Kelly said. “This is a first.”
CJ was diagnosed with Stage 3 lymphoblastic lymphoma, a type of childhood non-Hodgkin lymphoma in which cancer cells form in the lymph system. After going through two years of chemotherapy, he is now in remission. (The disease has a long-term survivor rate of more than 80 percent.)
Dawn George, CJ’s mother, said the effects of the illness didn’t seem to hit her son until he learned he could no longer play sports.
“When he was first diagnosed and they told him he had cancer, he was 9 years old and he didn’t cry. Then they told him he was going to lose his hair, and he didn’t cry. And then they told him that he was going to have chemotherapy for two years, and he didn’t cry,” she said. “Then they told him you can’t play sports and as soon as they said you can’t play sports, he lost it.”
She said after a few months, though, he knew he would play again.
“About three months into it, he realized that a true athlete would come back stronger and he said, ‘Mom, I’m going to play again and I’m going to come back stronger,’” she said. “He set the goal to play hockey.”
CJ currently plays for the JR Panthers, a travel team in Coral Springs, and hopes to continue playing hockey in college, she said. He is home schooled and often focuses on sports in between his studies.
In the future, he said he hopes to play professional ice hockey or become an actor.
“It’s kind of dreaming big,” he said, “but I dreamed pretty big with this ice rink and it came true — so you never know.”