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Cape Breton hockey players take on role of big brother for little Ella
SYDNEY -- A baby girl in Cape Breton who stole Maritimers' hearts while recovering from a bone marrow transplant has two Cape Breton Eagles in her corner.
When they're not stopping pucks or checking someone into the boards, Cape Breton Eagles goalie Kevin Mandolese and defenceman Kyle Havlena are billet brothers to one-year-old Ella MacPherson.
"Having fun with her -- and Boyd -- is just part of the daily routine," said Mandolese.
What also became a norm for the MacPherson family was hospital visits.
Ella was diagnosed back in the spring with osteopetrosis, which makes bones abnormally dense and prone to fracture.
She spent several months at Toronto Sick Kids where she received a bone marrow transplant.
Her billet brothers were in the middle of playoffs when Ella's health journey began. "They were well taken care of, but there's always that little doubt in your mind," Mandolese said. "So it was for sure tough."
Mandolese, whose brother is a cancer survivor, wanted to do something to give back to his second family in Sydney.
He asked Bauer, the company that makes his goalie pads, for help putting an insignia on the pillows.
The idea was that while Ella isn't yet well enough to attend games, she'll be with him -- in spirit -- on the ice.
"I think it was just to give Ella a little shout-out, and also remind me too how lucky we all are to be healthy, and be able to play hockey," Mandolese said.
Their other billet, Havlena, visited mom and baby in hospital in Toronto.
Both billets' gestures show how much of family they've become.
"I think it was really heartwarming," said Ella's mom, Jennifer MacPherson. "It's wonderful to know that you've opened your home as a family to two really great guys."
Mandolese is currently out of the Eagles' lineup with an injury.
While that means more time off the ice with Ella, it will be a while before the pads that bear her name make their debut in the team's goal crease.
"She's for sure going to be with me for the first game, the rest of the season, and pretty well probably the rest of my career," Mandolese said. "Because she's going to be battling with that for the rest of her life."
Mandolese is an Ottawa Senators draft pick and should he play for the NHL team one day, he says he'd love to fly Ella in for a game when she's older.
For now, this is a simple way to show support to the people who have housed him for four years.
"It's what family does, and that's what we are as billets, is a bigger, greater family," MacPherson said.