It all started with a video two years ago. Anders Lee played it over and over. Then the Islanders forward showed it to his then-girlfriend and now-wife, Grace, who was struck by it too.
The video was of a 15-year-old boy in a loose-fitting suit, holding an adult audience rapt as he spoke about his life since being diagnosed with Stage 4 neuroblastoma, a rare childhood cancer. Lee watched as the boy talked about seeing his mother cry when he was diagnosed at age 9. He watched as the boy talked about how he went through chemotherapy, radiation, stem cell treatments and countless surgery.
Yet far from finding it morbid or depressing, Lee thought it was one of the most inspirational things he had ever seen.
“I knew I had to meet him,” Lee said.
The boy was Fenov Pierre-Louis, an honors student from New Jersey who dreamed of someday working in the medical field but in the meantime wanted to help raise money to help those with cancer. Not only did Lee meet him, but the two forged an improbably tight friendship that Lee said will forever impact his life.
Lee will honor that friendship Sunday when he hosts his third annual Anders Lee Kan Jam event after the Islanders’ game against the Dallas Stars at Barclays Center. The event, which was launched shortly after the two met in 2016, has raised more than $225,000. All proceeds will go to benefit charities and organizations that support families affected by cancer, Lee said in an interview last week.
This will be the first time Pierre-Louis will not be at the event; he died on July 18 after an eight-year battle with the disease.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t think of Fenov,” said Lee, in his first season as the Islanders’ captain. “Knowing him really gave me a perspective and purpose.”
In some ways, it is hard to think of two people from more different worlds than Lee and Pierre-Louis.
Lee grew up in suburban Minneapolis, graduated from Notre Dame and could have gone to college on either a hockey or football scholarship. Pierre-Louis, who had never attended a hockey game before meeting Lee, is the son of a woman who emigrated from Haiti for a better life and encouraged her children to pursue the education she never had the opportunity to have.
“It’s definitely not a relationship I would have imagined in my entire life,” said Pierre-Louis’ sister, Sciaska, a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania. “There’s this white man who wants to be friends with a little black boy? In what storybook do you hear that tale?”
The two quickly became friends after Lee invited him to a hockey game in 2016. Soon they were texting back and forth and meeting each other’s family.
“I think we just clicked,” Lee said. “When I hopped on to doing this, I didn’t think I’d have one really close friend out of it. I thought I was going to meet a bunch of kids, and I have done that. But I didn’t realize how close I would become to Fenov. It’s made it more special and hard at times.”
As Pierre-Louis’ health started to decline last year, Lee looked for ways to spend more time with him. They arranged for him to drop the puck at an Islanders game last season, which wasn’t easy because the disease was starting to affect the way he walked. When Lee went to Denmark to play for Team USA in the world championships in May, he flew Fenov and his family to join him.
“It was pretty surreal,” Lee said. “Two years prior, he had never been in an arena. Now he’s in Denmark walking the streets of Herning. Grace sat with them in the stands and it was great to watch. He’s chanting ‘USA! USA!’ and singing and dancing and having a great time. At the same time, in the back of everyone’s mind, you know what he’s going through and his numbers were getting progressively worse.”
Pierre-Louis was too sick to attend Lee’s wedding in the Midwest last July. He died while they were on their honeymoon in Greece. A week later, they were at his funeral in New Jersey.
“I think there are these moments in life when you get your perspective checked,” Lee said. “We live in this wonderful bubble here playing hockey and doing what we do. Fenov put everything in perspective. He loved to talk. He was always smiling. Our friendship, it put everything in perspective.”
Pierre-Louis’ family will be there at Sunday’s postgame fundraiser, helping to continue the cause that their son championed even as he was dying of the very disease he was trying to beat.
“There’s so many other kids out there,” said Pierre-Louis’ mother, Mathilda. “Fenov wanted to help everyone, he always wanted to go out and help others feel better. Now Anders can help fight for others. It is very special.”
Anders Lee this season became the 15th player to wear the captain’s emblem for the Islanders.
Seasons Captain Fate
1972-77 Ed Westfall Relinquished captaincy
1977-79 Clark Gillies Relinquished captaincy
1979-87 Denis Potvin Relinquished captaincy
1987-91 Brent Sutter Traded to Blackhawks
1991-96 Patrick Flatley Signed with Rangers
1997-98 Bryan McCabe Traded to Canucks
1998-99 Trevor Linden Traded to Canadiens
1999-2000 Kenny Jonsson Relinquished captaincy
2001-04 Michael Peca Traded to Oilers
2005-07 Alexei Yashin Contract bought out
2007-09 Bill Guerin Traded to Penguins
2009-11 Doug Weight Retired
2011-13 Mark Streit Traded to Flyers
2013-18 John Tavares Signed with Leafs
2018-19 Anders Lee