These two ladies are called Amy and Beth Usher. I’ve never met either of them, but there’s a good chance I’ve passed both in the crowd at a Sheffield Steelers game-I’ve been to enough of them over the years following Coventry and other teams around the country while writing about UK hockey.
Amy and Beth are just two of millions of hockey fans around the world who go to hockey games every weekend, to roar their teams on, talk about hockey on the Internet, and generally enjoy the sport in typical hockey fan fashion.
However, in one respect Amy is very different to most hockey fans. And that respect is that she’s a young lady who life has thrown the nastiest of bodychecks at. An illness that strikes fear into people just by mention of its name.
Amy, you see, has liposarcoma. A rare, incurable type of throat cancer that she contracted in 2012, aged 18.
Since then, she and her elder sister, Beth, have become well-known both in Sheffield and the wider UK hockey community as tireless fundraisers and advocates for cancer care.
During her fight, Amy has been "adopted" by the Sheffield Steelers in the UK Elite League (the top level in the UK) as an unofficial mascot since first going to watch them in 2012. She’s known and loved by the team and fans, and money-raising efforts for the hospital where she’s being treated, Weston Park, have been supported strongly by fans across the UK, especially those of her sister.
She’s become as much a part of the team as any other…her name is now painted into the ice in front of the Sheffield entrance door at their home arena so the team are reminded of her as they hit the ice, she has become friends with the players, coaches and their other halves, and is constantly being mentioned on UK hockey Twitter.
She’s become more than just a hockey fan-she’s a member of the extended family of hockey fandom to thousands across the UK who’ve never met her in person.
On Thursday night, talk began circulating on UK hockey Twitter among Sheffield fans that Amy’s illness had taken a turn for the worse. Starting slowly but increasing at a rising rate, messages of support began to come in from all over UK hockey fandom, under the hashtag #HockeyFamilySticksTogether.
They came from all over the UK, from Basingstoke to Dundee and Belfast to Peterborough…messages of support for a young girl most of them had never met facing the fight of her life, encouraging her to keep fighting, sending support and compliments.
The number of messages grew at an increasing rate, from players, referees, club officials and fans. Then came the idea to show more tangible support than just a hashtag. A plan for every Elite League crowd this Saturday, wherever they were watching and whichever teams were playing, to chant Amy’s name and applaud during the 21st minute of play (21 because it’s Amy’s age, and also her favourite number).
But there was still more. Current Dundee Stars and former AHL and Sheffield Steeler player Chris Blight had the idea of setting up a "Fun Fund" to allow Amy and her family to treat themselves in any way they wanted:
That fund was set up at around 8pm UK time on Thursday. By midnight the total had already passed £1000 in donations, and as of now is still climbing.
Then, #hockeyfamilystickstogether – originally meant as a small show of support – spread so far across the UK hockey community that it became a trend on Twitter…something that NEVER happens in the UK, because hockey simply isn't big enough. In the process, it spread the news of Amy’s fight further, with such famous hockey names as Theo Fleury (who played a year in the UK with Belfast Giants) retweeting and spreading the news of Amy's fight
Something special was, and is happening here. UK hockey fandom has never been stingy in its generosity (such efforts as Belfast’s #bleedtealfortom campaign, in aid of a very ill young Giants fan, is also currently enjoying great support). But UK hockey Twitter is very much like NHL Twitter, with the same problems-it’s very rare if at all that a community that spends most of its time arguing over calls, goals and engaged in inter-club and inter-league rivalries finds itself so united. As for the UK sport itself...it's riven by politics, distrust and inter-club rivalries that would probably take a whole year's worth of posts to even begin to explain to an outsider.
Amy Usher, with her cheerful and optimistic outlook and clear love of all things Sheffield Steelers, UK hockey and hockey in general, has managed to do what few others have EVER done. Her battle has seemingly inspired something that all manner of other efforts have failed to do.
It’s united UK hockey behind a common cause. More to the point, it’s united UK hockey Twitter as a whole in a concerted effort to make a change for the better.
And that’s what makes her and her fight so extraordinary. For once everyone in UK hockey has put aside ego, PR concerns, considerations of team loyalty and petty politics and simply done something truly positive, as a whole. It’s done something all manner of negotiations, discussions and efforts over many many years could never manage.
Hopefully it’s just the start. As UK hockey Twitter realises just what it can do when it works together for a common cause, maybe others can be helped and the sport can begin to get noticed for positive, philanthropic reasons. There are many people out there in hockey fandom fighting their own, private battles, and they all need help.
It’s already been said countless times that Amy’s an inspiration to all who meet her. But tonight she’s inspired something even more-the joining-together of hockey fans from every part of Britain (and, slowly, beyond) in a common cause to help one of their own. She’s shown what UK hockey can do when it works together instead of against each other, and the effect it can have.
In short, through her refusal to be beaten by an opponent that would make most people tremble, and her ability to keep smiling through the kind of trials that would make many weep, she’s inspired magic. Magic that, if used right, will help many more than just her in the hockey community.
And for that, Amy, we thank you. Hockey fandom is all behind you, ma’am. Keep fighting.
The whole of UK hockey will be right there dropping the gloves with you.
To donate to Amy’s Fun Fund, set up by Dundee Stars player, former Sheffield Steeler and friend of Amy Chris Blight, you can use the following link: http://www.gofundme.com/mb6s6o