Of all The Hurricanes fans cheering on their team's improbable run to the Stanley Cup finals (page 50), not one is more loyal than 11-year-old Tyler Kessler of Raleigh. And of all the players he roots for, Tyler is most ardent about Ron Francis, 39, Carolina's Hall of Fame-bound center. "It was the first time he'd smiled in months," said Tyler's mother, Colleen, after Francis's May 3 goal against the Canadiens. "Ron has the ability to make him do that."
Last year Tyler, who is undergoing treatment for cancer of the lymph nodes, was a guest of the Ron Francis Family Night Out program, which treats seriously ill kids at Duke Children's Hospital to a 'Canes game. Like all other guests, Tyler got top treatment: a limo ride to the arena, roses for his mom, dinner at The Arena Club, seats in Francis's luxury suite and a visit to the locker room. The inspiration for the program came from Francis's learning-disabled brother, Ricky, 37. Ricky had seizures as a boy, which forced the Francis family to spend many nights in hospitals. "I know what the families are going through," says Francis. "I just hope that for a few hours they can enjoy themselves." Francis, who also chairs the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Special Olympics Summer Games (in which Ricky competes), recently got the NHL Foundation Player Award for community service. "The tough part is, not all the kids make it," he says, "but there are many more positives than negatives."