In late August, with training camp still a few days away, Nashville Predators All-Star defenseman P.K. Subban was already hard at work. While serving as the host of a gala in Montreal, Subban turned on his signature charm and started addressing donors.
The charitable event was part of Subban's pledge to raise $10 million for the Montreal Children's Hospital, which he announced in 2015 when he was still a member of the Montreal Canadiens. This year's affair featured a number of special guests, among them 10-year-old Talia Baily, who had completed her final chemotherapy treatment earlier that day.
"It was an emotional night. It was pretty spectacular because I didn't even know [about it being her final chemo treatment] until she got to my gala," Subban said. "It was emotional for everyone in the room, including the donors, the people we ask to come back every year and to support us."
Talia starts school on Oct. 11, marking a return to normalcy following a recovery that has included countless hospital stays (some of them in isolation) along with dozens of chemotherapy and radiation treatments as well as numerous blood and platelet transfusions.
Since June, when Talia's treatment became particularly arduous, Subban has been there for her. If not in person, then at least through regular interactions on social media.
As far as Subban is concerned, it's the least he can do for a friend.
"It got her through the worst part of her treatment," said Talia's mother, Joy Gandell. "She kept saying to nurses, 'Is this ever going to end?' He pretty much got her through the [last 10 weeks] with the Snapchat snaps. She would look forward to them every day. I don't have words [to express] what that relationship has done for my daughter."
A lifelong Canadiens fan and avid hockey player, Talia was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma in November. A very rare form of cancer found primarily in children and teenagers, it had manifested as a tumor in her rib, severely restricting the use of her right lung. Within days, Talia began chemotherapy treatment before undergoing surgery to remove the tumor in February and then daily radiation treatment.
Day 1 of @pksubbanfoundation hockey clinic is complete! If day 2 is anything like today, I will be one happy man! Merci Montréal! I also want to thank all the kids and families who traveled from different cities to support not only me, but more importantly children like my friend Talia Baily #pksf @lechildren @predsnhl
It was a parent's worst nightmare, and particularly terrifying for Gandell and her husband, Stuart Baily, who a year earlier had witnessed friends lose a child to cancer. But the moment after she was diagnosed, Talia found a potential silver lining in an otherwise ominous and dark cloud.
"She knew that the Habs regularly go to the hospital," Gandell said. "She said, 'Do you think I'll be able to meet hockey players?' "
In December, Talia noticed that Canadiens players had visited the oncology ward at the Montreal Children's Hospital mere days after she had been there. Just missing this potential encounter left her devastated.
Then it happened.
Through a circuitous network of friends, family and acquaintances, word of Talia's ordeal reached someone at Subban's charitable foundation. Days later, as Talia labored through another long, painful day in the hospital, Gandell received a video from Subban in which he wished his young fan courage and strength during the duration of her treatment.
Almost immediately, Talia's mood went from despondent to triumphant. She was still celebrating when she got home.
"I'm famous," she told her older brother, Seth. "P.K. knows my name."
She finally got to meet Subban in March when he returned to Montreal for his first road game since the shocking summer trade that brought Subban to Music City in exchange for Shea Weber. The hospital meeting, which included several other patients, left Talia elated. "Sometimes it is overwhelming because you don't realize how big of an impact you're having," Subban said. "Whenever I communicate with her, I realize that."
They would meet again in June when Subban stopped by after helping the Predators advance to the Stanley Cup Final, which Nashville lost in six games to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
By then, Talia was forced to endure hospital stays in complete isolation after being exposed to chickenpox. Bedridden at the far end of a long hospital corridor, she received oxygen to combat a side effect of the radiation.
When Subban entered the room, she practically hit the ceiling.
The Snapchat exchanges started there. Frequent discussions of everyday topics that offered an escape from the NHL grind, an escape from cancer treatment. From those regular correspondences, a friendship blossomed. By the time Subban befriended her, Talia had become something of a personality around the hospital. With a charming smile and an amiable persistence, she could convince staff to tweak her treatment schedule ever so slightly. Anything that would allow her to head home early.
Known for his own unbridled charisma, Subban was quickly taken by Talia's spirit and spunk.
"Her energy is phenomenal. It's her energy that makes it easy for us to have that bond. It's pretty cool," Subban said. "I think that a lot of people figure that just donating the money is enough. And it is. It is going to make a difference. But I think when you have the ability to donate your time and make that connection, it's a whole different level of fulfillment that you get. It's something that you can't really explain."
The relationship came naturally for Subban, a playful presence on and off the ice whose father was a school principal and whose two sisters are both teachers.
"I love kids," Subban said. "I've always had a great relationship with them."
In the case of one child ready to return to normalcy after almost a year spent fighting cancer, that relationship has had an incalculable impact.
"I have to say, it was a rough year. A really bad year. I didn't understand that we could ever be happy during this hell," Gandell said. "Then you have someone like P.K. Subban come in. Children idolize these celebrities. I just can't even verbalize. It's awe-inspiring, it's motivating. For the kids, it's just pure joy to be able to meet a celebrity. To see it is amazing. I think 'amazing' is the only word, but it's not anywhere close to a good enough word. It really isn't."