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Cancer can't keep this Brampton teen from his hockey dream

In an interview with CBC Toronto, Eli Craig said his dream is to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Submitted by Ashley Goodfellow Craig  - image credit)
In an interview with CBC Toronto, Eli Craig said his dream is to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Submitted by Ashley Goodfellow Craig - image credit)

Eli Craig says nothing can keep him from his dream of playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs — not even radiation and chemotherapy for a rare form of cancer.

The 13-year-old from Brampton, Ont., has played on a team since he was nine years old until a dirt bike accident last June. While treating his abdomen, doctors found his first tumour. He returned to the ice after treatment, but in December learned that the cancer had spread throughout his body.

He had to stop playing again to start chemotherapy, but this past February, managed to join his team for a playoff game. His community and teammates have supported him but Eli's life hasn't been the same.

Still, he's determined to play and inspire other kids with cancer.

"Don't give up, be positive," Eli said.

In that spirit, Eli has been showing up at the rink every chance he gets, and says he plans to practice hockey at least once a week for an upcoming tournament at his school.

Eli with his brothers Keirron (left) and Liam (right) on the dirt bike they gifted him last year. He had an accident on the bike which punctured his abdomen. During the treatment, doctors found a tumour which later turned out to be a rare form of cancer.
Eli with his brothers Keirron (left) and Liam (right) on the dirt bike they gifted him last year. He had an accident on the bike which punctured his abdomen. During the treatment, doctors found a tumour which later turned out to be a rare form of cancer.

Eli, centre, with his brothers Keirron, left, and Liam, right, on the dirt bike they gifted him last year. He had an accident on the bike which punctured his abdomen. During the treatment, doctors found a tumour which later turned out to be a rare form of cancer. (Submitted by Ashley Goodfellow Craig )

His family and friends have been trying to keep his spirits up too.

"We haven't even processed it yet," Eli's mother, Ashley Goodfellow Craig, told CBC Toronto. "It's hard to believe this is even happening. It's really overwhelming, we have so many people cheering us on, helping us out."

Eli's return the 'best moment of the season:' coach

When Eli entered chemotherapy right before the playoffs in February, his coach Bob Basra said no one expected he'd be back. But Eli decided to return to the ice straight out of the hospital to play with his team for two of the games that month.

"That moment when he stepped into the dressing room, when everyone was already changed, and to see everyone's faces light up, that to me was the best moment of the entire season," Basra said.

On Feb. 5, Eli surprised his team by showing up for a playoff game despite being in the hospital for eight days.
On Feb. 5, Eli surprised his team by showing up for a playoff game despite being in the hospital for eight days.

On Feb. 5, Eli surprised his team by showing up for a playoff game despite being in the hospital for eight days. (Submitted by Ashley Goodfellow Craig)

Teammates like Andrew Liscombe say Eli left the team elated that day.

"He was energized, like nothing I'd seen before," Liscombe said.

Eli didn't just show up for the game. Teammates said he was playing well despite being in the hospital for eight days in a row.

"He kind of hit all the points. He was making jokes in the locker room," said teammate Ronik Gharial. "He's fighting what he's going through and it shows how strong he is, and shows us how we need to fight too."

In March, Eli was awarded with a certificate of recognition by city council for his bravery and courage. 'Thank you for being an exemplary role moder for youth in our city,' it read.
In March, Eli was awarded with a certificate of recognition by city council for his bravery and courage. 'Thank you for being an exemplary role moder for youth in our city,' it read.

In March, Eli was awarded with a certificate of recognition by city council for his bravery and courage. 'Thank you for being an exemplary role model for youth in our city,' it read. (Submitted by Ashley Goodfellow Craig)

Some of Eli's teammates have played with him ever since he started, and say cheering him on is also a way to cope with a tough year for the team.

"It's hard," said teammate Noah East. "Some of us have known him a long time… played hockey with him every day, every single week."

"His heart inspires me," East said. "He has more motivation than anyone I've ever seen. He has so much heart and love for the game."

Brampton Hockey organized a coaches vs coaches game in honour of Eli's journey. Celebrated players like Wendel Clark participated. Clark also awarded Eli with an autographer jersey.
Brampton Hockey organized a coaches vs coaches game in honour of Eli's journey. Celebrated players like Wendel Clark participated. Clark also awarded Eli with an autographer jersey.

Brampton Hockey organized a coaches versus coaches game in honour of Eli's journey in March. Celebrated players like Wendel Clark participated and gave Eli and autographed jersey. (Saloni Bhugra/CBC)

In March, city council awarded Eli a special certificate of recognition for bravery and courage. "Thank you for being an exemplary role model for the youth in our city," the certificate read.

"He is a warrior, and he's not alone," Coun. Rowena Santos told CBC Toronto.

Brampton Hockey event honours Eli's journey 

Last weekend, Brampton residents and hockey players gathered at the Susan Fennell Sportsplex, where Brampton Hockey hosted a coaches versus coaches game to honour Eli's journey and raise money to support the family.

The event was sold out and the stands were filled with people in blue hoodies with #EliStrong written on them.

Eli's friends and teammates were present at the Brampton Hockey event to cheer him up with #EliStrong hoodies. They say he is an inspiration to them.
Eli's friends and teammates were present at the Brampton Hockey event to cheer him up with #EliStrong hoodies. They say he is an inspiration to them.

Eli's friends and teammates were present at the Brampton Hockey event to cheer him up with #EliStrong hoodies. They say he is an inspiration to them. (Saloni Bhugra/CBC)

Celebrated hockey players like Wendel Clark also participated in the event.

"It's really cool," Eli said of meeting Clark and receiving an autographed jersey from him at the event.

"Hockey is my favourite sport, it's fun to be here," Eli told CBC Toronto. "I'm mostly really tired," he said about playing right after chemotherapy. "That's the only challenge."

Tumours have stopped growing 

Eli's mother says she hopes he looks back on the day a bright spot in his journey.

"We hope he looks at this difficult time as having some special moments, and that was definitely one of them," she said.

Eli with his parents, brother, and grandparents at the Brampton Hockey annual coaches vs coaches match, which was organized to honour his journey.
Eli with his parents, brother, and grandparents at the Brampton Hockey annual coaches vs coaches match, which was organized to honour his journey.

Eli with his parents, brother, and grandparents at the Brampton Hockey annual coaches vs coaches match, which was organized to honour his journey. (Submitted by Ashley Goodfellow Craig)

With Eli missing most of the games since last year, Basra said Brampton Hockey took it upon themselves to create the "special moment" for the teenager "to show him his hockey family is there to support him the whole way through."

Eli's mother says his tumours recently stopped growing.

He enters radiation next week and she says his positive outlook is what she's been leaning on to get through.

"It's his actions… he wakes up early for his treatment. He leaves the hospital and shows up at the games," she said.

"We'll take the wins when we get them."