DULUTH - Despite the tape and bandages, Jarod Mainland grinned Saturday night as hundreds of Teddy bears rainbowed down on the Gwinnett Arena ice.
The 7-year-old doesn't yet have the strength to chuck his own Teddy. His parents had that honor. But what Mainland lacks in might, he more than makes up for in personal motivation, which translates to inspiration in others.
"He's very sweet, brave - he has the most positive outlook," said Nancy DeVries, former president of Chattahoochee Elementary School's PTA, where Mainland attended until he fell sick.
Mainland, a Duluth first-grader, was honored Saturday with dropping the first puck as the Gwinnett Gladiators faced ECHL rival Pensacola. The frail boy needed a friend's hand, but he skidded out to center ice - fitted with his pint-sized Gladiators jersey and stocking cap - and completed the ceremony, dropping a puck that was later autographed and returned to him.
Mainland was diagnosed Sept. 22 with Medulloblastoma - the most common brain tumor among children. He started his second round of chemotherapy Thursday, after enduring months of surgery and rehab. Instead of first grade, he now attends therapy for six hours daily, trying to regain his pre-tumor speech and walking capabilities.
He's walked as far as 800 unassisted feet so far.
"It's all there," said the youngster's father, Larry Mainland. "He's the biggest inspiration you've ever seen in your life. He always loved to run - that's what he's trying to do."
Jarod Mainland's big night was perfectly timed. Saturday marked the Gladiators' fifth annual Teddy Bear Toss - a minor league hockey tradition where fans bomb the ice with (new or gently used) Teddies immediately after the Gladiators' first goal.
Gladiators president Steve Chapman said the toys are corralled from the ice and distributed to local hospitals and charities, such as Toys For Tots. Hundreds of colorful animals dotted the ice when the Gladiators tied the game 1-1 shortly into the second period.
"It's a pretty neat sight - fans just love to do it," Chapman said. "Hopefully it ends up brightening kids' lives."
Jim Hall, director of community relations at the Arena, said Chattahoochee Elementary was allotted 300 tickets as a fundraiser, and a portion of tickets sales will be channeled to the Mainland family.
"The community has rallied around this family in an extraordinary way," Hall said. "A lot of love and anonymous financial support."
The youngster's mother couldn't be more thankful. Flanked in Row 119 by hundreds of her son's friends, fellow students and nurses, Rhonda Mainland recalled recent charities that have help with bills and stocked the family's refrigerator.
She also remembered a recent phone call. Her son had been trying to regain his speech, to turn his involuntary laughing into controlled words. He figured out the word "Hey" recently, and his father immediately called her via cell phone.
Jarod Mainland simply told his mother "Hey."
"It was the sweetest voice I had heard in many a day," she said.