Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
When he was diagnosed with a potentially dangerous heart condition back in 2016, Chayce Taylor had to cut back on his athletic activities, including giving up playing hockey.
But that hasn’t prevented Taylor, a 14-year-old from Berens River First Nation in Manitoba, from making it to the National Hockey League.
Earlier this month, Taylor signed a one-day contract to join the roster of the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins, through Make-A-Wish. The foundation, launched in 1980, helps fulfill wishes for children under 18 with a critical illness.
Taylor was diagnosed with Long QT syndrome. He was born with a heart defect that can significantly alter his heart rate, leading to a potentially life-threatening situation. He now takes daily medication to regulate his heart rate.
Though signing a contract with the Penguins was obviously a highlight in his life, Taylor, who lives in Edmonton said most of his friends were nonchalant about the experience.
“My friends didn’t care about it,” said Taylor, whose cousin is former NHL star Reggie Leach, a member of the 1975 Stanley Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers. “They’re mostly all into soccer. But my teachers were definitely impressed. And so were my neighbours.”
Taylor’s mother Kody said her son had actually been waiting a handful of years to have his wish granted of joining the Penguins’ organization for a day.
Officials with Stollery Children’s Hospital in Edmonton had completed paperwork that he was eligible for the Make-A-Wish program several years ago.
Program officials then contacted Taylor’s family to determine what Chayce’s wish would be. His top preference was always to join the Penguins in Pittsburgh for a day.
After being told his wish would be granted, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world in early 2020 putting Taylor’s wish and travel plans on hold.
His wish was finally fulfilled a few weeks ago, on March 8. Taylor was one of four youth who signed one-day contracts to join the Penguins’ organization.
He travelled from Edmonton to Pittsburgh for a five-day trip with his mother, eight-month-old sister Beaux and his stepfather Kurt Johnson.
“It was absolutely incredible,” Kody Taylor said. “He’s been waiting for this for years.”
Chayce and the three other wish recipients started off their trip by having breakfast inside the Penguins’ dressing room.
Various Pittsburgh players, as well as the team’s head coach Mike Sullivan, popped into the dressing room at various times during the breakfast, held before a team practice.
Sullivan said it’s not just the wish recipients but also those part of the Penguins’ organization who were fortunate to be part of the day.
“It's an incredible experience for all of us that have an opportunity to share an experience with these kids that are going through a difficult time,” he said. “I think we gain every bit as much fulfillment out of it as they do. I know it's a huge thrill for our guys. They look forward to this opportunity. It's certainly a privilege from our standpoint to meet these kids.”
After their breakfast and meet-and-greets in the dressing room, the wish recipients and Penguins’ general manager Ron Hextall participated in a press conference during which one-day contracts to join the club were signed.
“We're excited to have them as part of our team today,” said Hextall, a former NHL goaltender. “It's an exciting day for all of our players. I know our players are pumped.”
Following the press conference, the four wish recipients donned hockey gear and hit the ice as the Penguins’ practice was ending.
Several of the team’s players, however, stuck around and skated with the youth for about half an hour.
The next day the wish recipients and their family members watched the Penguins square off against the New York Islanders.
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby offered the family members use of his charity suite to watch the game.
“They covered all of our expenses,” Kody Taylor said. “They went above and beyond.”
The Penguins have been involved with the Make-A-Wish program for about three decades now.
Dana Antkowiak, the senior manager of marketing and communications for Pittsburgh’s Make-A-Wish branch, was pleased to see the Penguins return to fulfilling wishes this year.
“These kids already faced isolation and difficult times before the pandemic,” Antkowiak said of this year’s recipients. “Then you add a pandemic on top of that, it's been exceptionally challenging for these families. For wishes to return to normal, it just means the world to them. It's so impactful on their life.”
Besides his NHL contract which he plans to get framed, Chayce returned from Pittsburgh with several other souvenirs, including a Penguins’ jersey with his name on the back, as well as a helmet signed by the team’s players.
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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.