Simeon Schlaggar is a Blues fan and he can’t imagine ever being anything else. A hockey player himself, he knows a bit about giving it all he has and leaving everything on the ice. His nickname, after all, is Freight Train.
So it meant a lot to Simi when his beloved Blues made the playoffs and brought home the Stanley Cup. His team had fought back from last place and won it all. He could relate because he was fighting, too.
It takes a lot to stop a freight train, but cancer tried.
In March 2016, at age 10, Simi started spring break complaining of a stomach ache. A couple of trips to the pediatrician’s office could not explain the increasing discomfort he was experiencing. Eight days after the pain started, Simi visited the emergency department at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. His blood work showed an extremely elevated white blood cell count, and he was admitted to the hospital that night. Three days later, he was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia [T-ALL], a blood cancer. Chemotherapy treatment was started immediately, and Simi was enrolled in a national clinical trial as well as several local research studies.
Simi’s mom, Hristina shared, “The first eight months of treatment were brutal.” But as he entered a near three-year period of “maintenance treatment,” which still included daily chemotherapy, Simi resumed a somewhat normal life. He went back to school and resumed playing baseball in the spring, followed by a return to the ice in the fall for the St. Louis Rockets.
Fast forward to the weekend of Jan. 24-25 when 40 of hockey’s best players showed up in St. Louis for the NHL All Star Game – and Simi was there.
Selected by the Make-A-Wish organization and the NHL, Simi had the chance of a lifetime – not only attending the All Star Game and the NHL Skills Competition but also touring the locker rooms at the Enterprise Center and meeting the likes of Ryan O’Reilly and Jordan Binnington.
“It was mesmerizing and breathtaking,” Simi said of his All Star experience. “I don’t really have any words to describe it. It was wonderful.
“Being able to see players that you know are going to be legends of the game and just walking around chatting was really crazy. We just chatted away like no big deal. It was cool to see that they’re just regular people off the ice. And being able to see the Stanley Cup in person … it’s really big and shiny.”
“Even pictures of us with the Stanley Cup just don’t do it justice,” Hristina added. Part of the joy for Simi was that his wish was a family affair. His dad, Bradley Schlaggar, MD; sister, Lena; and his mom shared the experience with him.
O’Reilly told NHL.com staff writer William Douglas that he was thrilled to meet Simi and his family.
“It’s awesome, so special and a privilege to have an impact like that,” O’Reilly said. “It’s really cool. They’re having a great time being around us, enjoying it. And it makes us feel good.”
While Make-A-Wish and the NHL made sure Simi and his fellow wish recipients – 8-year-old Olivier Couture of Sherbrooke, Quebec, and Spencer McNamara, 18, of Louisdale, Nova Scotia – made memories to last a lifetime, a chance encounter added to Simi’s fun.
While attending the Alumni Game, he had the chance to meet fellow Blues fan, actor Jon Hamm.
“At first I hadn’t noticed that he was there. He just kind of wandered in with everybody else,” Simi said. “And then Emily [Zimmerman, wife of St. Louis Blues president and CEO Chris Zimmerman] introduced us and he was just a really nice guy. One of the things that was really interesting is how well he words every sentence. He says it very quickly, but the way that he says it and what he says is … frankly phenomenal from a kid’s standpoint.
Brad added, of Hamm, “He was really sweet and low key. He’s a huge fan and he’s just folded into that hockey family around the Blues.”
As for Hamm’s wit, Brad added, “He’s fast on his feet with any kind of comment and he’s very funny. But I think about the sweetness. He spoke with our daughter, Lena, as well. He wanted to know about her and he was patient and very responsive to her. Just a good guy.”
Lena, age 12, is almost two years younger than Simi, who describes her as “a very creative person, into the performing arts, acting, singing, dancing – very creative.”
As for how Simi ended up at the Alumni Game, that’s a story of St. Louis’ “one-degree of separation.”
“I got to know Chris when I was working at St. Louis Children’s Hospital and Wash U, both from connected circles of friends and also from a work relationship … he helped me to recruit faculty to Wash U and St. Louis Children’s Hospital – hockey fans that we brought on as faculty. Then, when Simi got diagnosed, Chris and Emily really sprung into action supporting us.
“He knew that the Make-A-Wish was in the works. It had nothing to do with the Blues, it was all NHL and Make-A-Wish but we were communicating with him and Emily about it and … he said, ‘What can I do to add to the experience?’
“That’s how the Blues are. They believe in the community connection. They believe in it deeply and they deliver on it. And just because of the way life turned, we’ve experienced that personally.”
As of this writing, Simi has completed treatment and is a healthy 14-year-old. However, because of the cancer and chemo, Simi is at risk for liver and heart problems, and for cancer recurrence or new cancer, for the rest of his life.
Acutely aware that two of his friends – 11-year-old Ari and 13-year-old Gavin – did not survive as he did, Simi wants to become a pediatric neuro-oncologist. His goal is to take care of kids like him, Ari and Gavin, and help find ways to beat cancer earlier and with less invasive therapies.