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Ryan Cowley: The story behind unwavering fanaticism, and the Tannerhead legacy

Image: Diane Raboin

For the second time in their 45-year history, the Los Angeles Kings are playing in the NHL’s Western Conference Final, against the Phoenix Coyotes. Although hockey purists seethe at a matchup between two clubs from unfriendly hockey climates, no one can deny the road both teams took to get here. To the naked eye (likely located in a hockey hotbed north of the border), Los Angeles is nothing more than sunny days, celebrity-sightings and beach parties. But don’t go telling that to the tens of thousands of fans who avidly support Tinseltown’s hockey team.

Whether they were fans for a few years or since the team’s inception in 1967, in Los Angeles, Canada, Australia or England, the loyalists of the Los Angeles Kings stick by their team through thick and thin, even for many years when countless tries at rebuilding made it oh-so-frustrating to stand behind them. Steven Raboin has been an avid supporter of the Los Angeles Kings since 1986 and with his son Tanner born five years later, it was apparent that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

On June 25, 1991, Tanner Raboin was born to proud new parents, aforementioned Steven and wife Diane. In his infancy, Tanner was diagnosed with Chronic Granulomatous Disease (CGD), which is a primary immune deficiency. CGD is a rare inherited affliction characterized by recurrent bacterial and fungal infections of the lungs, liver, lymph nodes, bones and skin. Tanner, though, was a warrior.

After being in and out of hospitals through much of his childhood, an eight-year-old Tanner was finally able to go to Staples Center (home of the Kings) to help his dad cheer on his beloved team. Despite being showered with Kings’ apparel since he was a baby, it was here when the allegiance carried over to the little Raboin.

Though his illness limited the number of games he could attend, Tanner was not deterred. His unflappable optimism grew on those around him. While family and friends adored Tanner, everyone was inspired by him. While his bravery and determination were second-to-none, it was Tanner’s compassion for others that separated him from the pack. According to Steven, Tanner “was always worried about others first, not himself.”

In the fall of 2010, Steven, like so many Kings fans did every preseason, prepared for Los Angeles’ annual Frozen Fury exhibition in Las Vegas. Unfortunately due to illness, Tanner was not able to make the annual trip with his father and uncles. So, Steven promised that he would figure out a way to bring the game to his son. From there, three cut-outs were made of Tanner’s head: one for Steven and one for each uncle, Scott and Tim. Some glue was added, followed by a Popsicle stick and, lo and behold, the Tannerhead was born. Steven and his brothers dedicated their voyage to Tanner by taking hundreds of photos of them with the Tannerheads throughout the entire trip. Steven’s idea spread like wildfire. Hundreds of friends and fans generously posed in honor of Tanner.

Sadly, the following April, at 19 years of age, Tanner lost his battle with CGD. The Kings community lost a son, brother and a dear friend. At his memorial, Kings’ broadcaster Jim Fox and former Hall of Fame trainer Pete Demers were in attendance along with Bailey, the Kings’ beloved mascot, as well as a plethora of Kings fans to pay their respects to their fallen teammate. But it was definitely not goodbye.

Kings fans everywhere showed their support for the Raboin family by carrying on the Tannerhead tradition. Wherever the Kings and their fans were, the Tannerheads were right there with them. Even a life-size cardboard cut-out of Tanner was made. This past September 30, I landed in Los Angeles and immediately drove to Las Vegas for the 2011 version of Frozen Fury. On the drive, there was a Tannerhead every 12 miles from LAX to Sin City. Whether they were applied to freeway signs, rest stops or phone booths, no Kings fan was inclined to kick off the new season without their inspiration. In Vegas, many fans plastered Tannerheads all over MGM Arena and all across the strip while a few fans painted Tanner’s name and number, 91, on the back of their Kings shirts to show their unwavering dedication. Who says whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas?

Two days before Tanner’s passing, the Los Angeles Kings partnered up with the “Be the Match” foundation as part of their Fan Appreciation Day at Staples Center during a game against their cross-town rivals from Anaheim. “Be the Match” is a bone marrow registry, which the Raboins became involved in when their son was in need a marrow transplant.

“Because of our dedication as Kings fans and season ticket holders,” Steven said, “we have met hundreds of wonderful people, who came to his (Tanner’s) aid when the Kings partnered with ‘Be the Match’ with the intent to find a match for Tanner. The night of the partnership, BTM registered 307 people.”

“The fact that we have the potential to save a life is amazing. As individuals, we can do this in many ways. I want to ensure that nobody has to go through what my son did in his short life.”

While in Bethesda, Maryland for treatments in early 2011, Tanner was accompanied by his parents to the nearby nation’s capital to visit the Verizon Center where he got to watch his beloved Kings take on the host Washington Capitals. That afternoon at the game, the Raboins were guests of Wanda Mae Lombardi, wife of Kings general manager Dean Lombardi. “This was one of the best days together, ever,” said Steven who, with his son and wife, watched their team win 4-1.

After the game, Tanner had the privilege of meeting three of the Kings players: Drew Doughty, Kyle Clifford and his hands-down favourite, Wayne Simmonds. The three spent time with Tanner while Doughty, who was nominated as the league’s top defenseman the previous spring, gave him his game stick.

Steven went on to say that through the creation of the Tannerheads, which evolved into Tannerhead Nation and www.tannerhead.com, became a coping mechanism. Knowing that Steven and Diane are helping not only to gain awareness for Tanner’s affliction but letting his spirit live on in so many different ways is nothing short of inspiring.

While no one would blame Steven and Diane for letting the passing of their only child shut them off from the world, they have made it their mission to save the lives of others who have been afflicted with CGD. Whether at the Staples Center, team fundraisers or watch parties, Steven is out there getting his point across and, so far, it’s working admirably.

“He fought to the bitter end without a complaint,” Steven said of his late son. Some say that the best parents are the ones who learn from their children and this is certainly no exception.

When I was in Los Angeles early in the season, I could not help but see all the Tannerheads out in full-force. Now that the Los Angeles Kings are making their biggest playoff run since 1993, Tanner’s legacy has only gotten stronger. Amongst the time-honoured playoff traditions of towel-waving, beard-growing and good luck charms, Tanner is front-and-center.

Sadly, I never had the honour of meeting Tanner but through many fans, I know just how much he meant to the Kings family and how intricate a role he plays now, even if he’s no longer with us physically.

As the Los Angeles Kings continue their Western Final series with Phoenix, Tanner will be right there every step of the way. Tanner is watching from the big rink in the sky and smiling down on not only his resurgent Kings but at all the fans who continue to honour him and, most of all, his loving family who continue to tell their son’s story and not only fight against CGD but to educate others of the importance of blood, platelet and marrow donation, whether it’s through Be the Match or the Red Cross.

If you would like to donate or learn more about the “Be the Match” Foundation, please visit www.marrow.org today and see how you can help.

If Steven Raboin is any indication, the fans of the Los Angeles Kings are not just some of the most loyal but some of the strongest and most resilient, also. This example of determination would not only make anyone a proud Kings fan but would make them the sentimental favourites to win the Stanley Cup.

How much does Tanner Raboin mean to the Los Angeles Kings? Well, shortly after his passing, the organization put Tanner’s name and number on one of their jerseys, framed it and now resides at the LGK Penalty Box (a Kings themed bar) at the ESPN Zone across from Staples Center. There, Tanner’s framed jersey is mounted on a wall with other Kings greats like Luc Robitaille, Marcel Dionne and some guy named Wayne Gretzky. It’s great when any team shows appreciation for their fans but when an organization goes this far, one can’t help but applaud such a noble gesture.

In terms of both Los Angeles’ championship aspirations and the fight against CGD, there is still ways to go. But no one can deny that, in both cases, they’re on the right path. While Tanner’s memory remains, so does his dedicated optimism, which has become so contagious that no one in the Kings community has been fazed by anything, nor will they be anytime soon.

Thank you, Tanner.


Ryan Cowley is a writer at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter @RyanACowley.

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