Her man: Henrik Zetterberg’s special bond with young Red Wings fan

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Detroit Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg and Mollie Moquin.

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Before every home game, Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg looks up during the warm-up skate to where she would sometimes sit. There isn’t much time to think about anything other than hockey in those moments leading up to the opening faceoff, but he makes sure he takes a moment. And somewhere in that moment within a moment, he thinks of her.

“It’s so hard to say how and why we connected,” Zetterberg said. “That’s how life is; you connect better with some people.”

From the very beginning, he connected with Mollie.

There really wasn’t any story behind that name. It just seemed to fit her. Mollie was a sunny name for a bright girl. She seemed to be smiling right out of the womb.

“I wanted a name that made her different,” said her mom, Colleen Moquin, “and she was different.”

Mollie played all kinds of sports growing up in Flushing, Mich., from swimming to basketball, volleyball to soccer. She never played hockey, but it became a favorite when she began watching it on TV. Soon her whole family was watching it with her. She had that kind of charisma; people just followed along.

“Always happy,” Colleen said. “Very, very happy.”

Mollie was 8 years old when she started mentioning some pain in her leg. She didn’t complain much — she never did — but her parents took her to the doctor. They figured it was just growing pains. The pain got worse, and the doctors said the same thing: Tylenol, Motrin.

Then, after still another visit, Colleen got a call from the doctors. They had changed their interpretation of an X-ray. Mollie needed to come in for more testing.

This time, doctors did a biopsy. They found a tumor in the right side of her pelvis. Colleen’s sense that it wasn’t just growing pains was right. It was Ewing’s Sarcoma.

Mollie had stage 4 bone cancer.

Mollie Moquin fell in love with the Red Wings and Henrik Zetterberg in particular.
Mollie Moquin fell in love with the Red Wings and Henrik Zetterberg in particular.

“We just held onto that 10 to 15 percent chance that she would survive,” Colleen said. She and Mollie’s dad, Craig, told their daughter there was a tumor, and that chemotherapy would shrink it. Mollie took the news without a trace of fear.

“She never questioned it,” Colleen said. “Never said, ‘Why me?’ Still through all of this, still happy.”

Mollie would lose the chance to play the sports she loved. What she found, though, was a love of the Red Wings. In December 2009, she got to go to a game as part of Mike Babcock’s ongoing relationship with Children’s Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. Mollie got to meet the coach and he invited her back later in the season to see the locker room and meet the players. Even then it was clear who she wanted to meet most.

That April, Mollie returned. Colleen spotted Zetterberg and walked right up to him, telling the Red Wings captain that Mollie referred to him as “her man.” Zetterberg laughed. Mollie most certainly did not.

“Mom!” she said, “Stop embarrassing me!”

A few minutes later, Zetterberg left the locker room and returned. He was holding a stick that he handed to Mollie. He had written a note on it and signed it, “Your man, Henrik Zetterberg.”

Mollie turned bright red.

“She was so giggly,” Zetterberg said. “Always smiling, always laughing in a giggly way. She had so much energy inside of her. Once it came out, she couldn’t stop talking.”

After that meeting, the Red Wings didn’t see Mollie for a while. Her cancer went into remission.

Zetterberg got the occasional update on Mollie over the next two years; glad to hear she was doing better. Then the team got a call from Children’s Hospital: Mollie’s cancer had returned.

In 2013, three years after their first meeting, Mollie was outside the Red Wings locker room again. Zetterberg was there to greet her with a photo. A few months later, Mollie was invited again as part of the team’s annual Hockey Fights Cancer night. She watched the game with Zetterberg’s wife, Emma, in the suite they have for his foundation. She even made a friend, another little girl battling cancer.

“She was uplifted,” Colleen says. “I think she felt she could conquer anything with that. And for us it was an escape. I think she loved that part of it as well. When we went down there [to the arena], there was no cancer. She was Mollie. It gave us a lot of strength to move on.”

It was mutual. Babcock and the Red Wings host many sick children and have done so for many years. But Mollie made quite an impression: on the coach, the team and Zetterberg.

“It was something about Mollie,” he said. “You meet a lot of great kids, they go through something so horrible and they are so strong. That’s the way Mollie was. The way her family was, too.”

The team made a hospital visit later in 2013 and Zetterberg made sure to see Mollie. She burst into tears.

“That was the first time I saw her crying,” he said. “She saw me and got too overwhelmed. I had never seen her cry.”

Within a few seconds, though, both of them were laughing. That’s usually how it went.

Mollie’s cancer got worse. Colleen and Craig knew their daughter’s road was getting steeper. Still, she didn’t show any outward sign of distress or doubt. She had lost her hair, but she wore a headband with a pretty white ribbon attached to it — just like she did when she was healthy. She kept talking about wanting to be a nurse when she was older. That was her dream and she held onto it no matter how awful the trips to the hospital got. People in her community held fundraisers, but they said it was as much to spend time with Mollie as to spend money on Mollie.

Mollie Moquin lost her fight with cancer on Feb. 11 at the age of 14.
Mollie Moquin lost her fight with cancer on Feb. 11 at the age of 14.

The family came back to the rink for a game in 2014. Zetterberg was in a bit of a slump, but he scored that night and retrieved the puck. He signed it and gave it to Mollie. “To my lucky charm,” it said. She blushed again.

The Moquins left the rink that night and Mollie couldn’t stop talking about the visit. Zetterberg had commented on the slippers she wore, and she wanted to get him a pair.

“I was so embarrassed,” Mollie told her mom, “I told him I got them at Meijers!”

“Mollie,” Colleen said, “it doesn’t matter. He loved them.”

The next month, Mollie came back with some slippers for “her man.” They were too small. He loved them anyway.

That was the last time they saw each other.

Mollie died on Feb. 11. Zetterberg got a text that night at his home. It always hurts when one of the children who visit the team passes away. The news about Mollie hurt a lot. It shook Zetterberg and Babcock and several others in the organization. Mollie was only 14.

Her funeral was on Valentine’s Day. Her parents decided to leave the casket closed for the service because, as Colleen said, “we wanted everyone to remember Mollie with that beautiful smile and the twinkle in her eye.”

Next to the casket were red and white roses, sent by the team. And there was a photo of Mollie and Henrik.

“He was so important to her,” Colleen said. “I guess I would simply say she loved him. She did. He was her hero.”

The Red Wings played the next night. Zetterberg wrote Mollie’s name on his stick.

“It was a special game,” he said. “A tough game for me to play. I thought of her a lot.”

Colleen gathered all of Mollie’s Red Wings memorabilia and put it in her room. Two months after her daughter’s passing, she still leaves that room untouched.

“She was still talking about her future the day she died,” Colleen said. “She loved life and loved people. She never saw the bad in anything. I was inspired by her. She was laughing and life was good. I was lucky to be her mom.”

Zetterberg considers himself lucky, too. There was something about Mollie, and it stays with him even as he hosts other children who just want a few hours to cheer and forget about their sickness. He still isn’t quite sure what clicked between them, but it was immediate and it lasted. He misses it now. And when he plays his first home playoff game next week, he will take a moment within a moment, and look up.