Remembering Ryder: Northern Manitobans hang hockey jerseys for boy lost to cancer

The death of a young hockey player with a brain tumour has left a huge hole in the northern communities of Opaskwayak Cree Nation and The Pas, where people are hanging up jerseys in the windows of their homes and businesses in his honour.

Ryder Armstrong of Opaskwayak Cree Nation and The Pas is being remembered for his strength on and off the ice

Nine-year-old Ryder Armstrong played hockey for The Pas Huskies before dying from a brain tumour on Jan. 17. (Submitted by The Pas Minor Hockey Association)

House by house, the jerseys seemed to appear overnight.

They were hung in front windows and on porches in memory of a nine-year-old hockey player who died of a brain tumour on Friday.

For people in The Pas, Man., and on the nearby Opaskwayak Cree Nation, the massive show of support was a reminder of how Ryder Armstrong united the two communities in the year he spent battling an unrelenting, high-grade glioma.

"It's amazing how everybody just comes together if someone needs help or someone needs some support," said Deann MacInnis, a close friend of Ryder's parents, Lissa Whitehead and Bryan Armstrong.

The Manitoba communities are located about one kilometre away from each other, one on each side of the Saskatchewan River, and 521 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

Ryder's diagnosis last January sent shock waves through the northern communities, his former hockey coach Jerome Conaty said.

With a mother from Opaskwayak Cree Nation and a father from The Pas, he had strong support systems in both communities.

"It bound the communities together, because everyone was just so supportive of him and just wished him the best," said Conaty. "He was amazing. I honestly don't know of one person in our community who isn't somehow already connected to him through family and friends or through hockey. He touched a lot of souls."

A spokesperson for University College of the North said Ryder spent many summers in one of the school's kids' programs. The college displayed a message of support for him at its campus in The Pas, with a sign reading #RyderStrong in the windows.

University College of the North is one of many public institutions, businesses and homes around The Pas and OCN with jerseys hanging in the windows in honour of Ryder Armstrong. (Submitted by University College of the North)

"Whether you knew Ryder or not, his story of strength while facing such a terrible disease is both inspiring and heart breaking," spokesperson Monte Koshel wrote in an email on Saturday.

"I don't personally know Ryder's family, but after I dropped my daughter off for a play date last night, I had to drive through tears while jersey after jersey was displayed in everyone's windows."

Over the course of his treatment last year, Ryder seemed to be getting better, Conaty said.

"It was a super big thrill for the kids," he said. "He came back in his wheelchair, but he was able to come and spend some time with all of his teammates and even go on the ice. And then again he progressed and had one heck of a year."

'An amazing soul'

Even a month ago, things were looking up.

"The tumor was shrinking and that was a blessing," said MacInnis. "[This] past December, they said it had shrunk so much, that things looked good. They had a positive visit in December."

But a few weeks ago, things took a turn for the worse. After Ryder started having seizures, tests revealed the cancer had spread rapidly through his spinal cord fluid. And on Friday morning, the nine-year-old took his last breath.

Now, the communities are focused on the person they've lost, and on how they can make sure he's never forgotten.

Ryder meeting Winnipeg Jets right-winger Patrik Laine at one of the team's morning skates last year. (Bryan Armstrong/Facebook)

"It's tough. It's really hard. But I think from here, there's probably many lessons that people have learned and we just know how much Ryder loved everybody. And it'll probably stay with people for a long time," said MacInnis.

Conaty said Ryder's friends and family are coming up with ways to keep his legacy going.

"Our whole communities are really devastated right now," said Conaty. "We just have to kind of propel ourselves forward. Take that fierceness that Ryder had, and focus it on positivity and doing good in the communities."

For now, they're starting with something small, something familiar. On Monday, Ryder's friends and family are asking other people, even outside the communities, to hang a jersey in their front windows in honour of a huge hockey fan who saw his last game too soon.

"He was one of the fiercest, fiercest kids out there. Always had a lot of hustle, always skating super hard for the puck, had a really good attitude," said Conaty. "An extremely kind child, lots of energy. Big, chubby cheeks. He was an amazing soul."

With files from Dana Hatherly and Caitlyn Gowriluk


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