Genny Shepler hugs the Stanley Cup. (Helene Elliott / Los Angeles…)
Defensemen who wouldn't hesitate to block wicked slap shots with their faces are considered tough, but they have nothing over 9-year-old hockey player Genny Shepler of Forest Falls.
Brawny enforcers are applauded when they avenge their teammates' honor, but they're not as brave as the brown-haired girl who wore a Kings shirt and had a black balloon tied to her wheelchair with purple ribbon as she greeted the Stanley Cup on Tuesday at the HealthBridge Children's Hospital in Orange.
"I want to walk," she said when the Cup arrived, ferried there by the Kings. And so she did, another step forward on a long journey back to health and hockey.
Genny, a good student and member of the Lady Reign hockey team, was hiking with three siblings in the mountains near her home July 30 when she slipped and fell about 30 feet, fracturing her skull and bruising her brain stem. She was in a coma for 11 days.
"At one point, her doctors came in and told us, 'You need to prepare yourself for the fact that she might not wake up, or that she might be in a vegetative state, or that she might not be able to walk,'" said her mother, DeAnne. "I said, 'You don't know this kid.' "
Genny, sitting a few feet away, chimed in. "You don't know me," she said.
To know her is to recognize a fighter, a kid who loved watching the minor-league Ontario Reign and was so enthusiastic about being on the ice that she played at Ice Town in Riverside and recently added Wednesday sessions at Ontario Ice. She wasn't playing on a travel team but she participated in her first out-of-town tournament in January, in San Jose.
"The Fall Classic this weekend at Ice Town, that's the first tournament that she's going to miss," DeAnne said.
Genny has made great strides since her accident, first at Loma Linda University Medical Center and since Aug. 16 at HealthBridge, which specializes in children's rehabilitation.
The baby in this five-child blended family basically had to relearn "everything," DeAnne said, and she still needs a feeding tube, though that was removed Tuesday so she could come outside to see the Cup perched on an aluminum picnic table beneath cool shade trees. She has trouble standing and her speech is choppy, but she was careful to thank everyone for bringing the Cup and was feisty enough to swat her sister Hanna in the head when Hanna dared block her view of the Cup.
"Her personality is back," said her father, Kevin, a locksmith at Riverside Community College.
"She wants to go to Boston University. She's going to play hockey for them. Before the accident I knew how little chance she had and I know that now, after the accident, she's got less of a chance, but I'm more convinced now that she's going to do it than I was before the accident."
Her brother Tristan, 16, said her daily progress has been remarkable.
"Oh, she's going to be playing whether it's sled hockey or regular hockey. She's a very determined person. Look at her," he said, as she stood and gazed at the Cup. "She couldn't do that a week ago."
Hockey, in fact, might have accelerated her recovery.
When she regained motion in her hands, DeAnne gave her a hockey stick to hold and later brought her stick and gloves — familiar objects — to her hospital room.
"One thing they said really plays a part in her favor was her physical shape before her accident," DeAnne said. "It really helps a lot with recovery."
The Cup's appearance Tuesday was arranged by Erin Power, who also works at Riverside Community College and has a son the same age and in the same grade as Genny. Thinking that seeing the Cup might give Genny an emotional boost, Power said she went to the Kings' website and emailed everyone whose name was listed. When someone responded and scheduled the visit, she was overwhelmed.
"It really hit home," she said of Genny's accident. "I just tried to do something. It's really awesome."
Genny was similarly impressed. "It's fun," she said. "I got to see the Cup."
Spoken like the true hockey player she is in spirit.