Mother Of NHL Stars Saved The Life Of Local Hero

Hockey means a lot to the community of Seaforth, Ontario, especially to Bonnie O’Reilly. Her sons grew up training at their local ice arena almost every day and eventually went on to become star players in the NHL. The man who ran that ice rink was a pillar in their town. When the people of Seaforth found out he was in danger of losing his life, it was time for O’Reilly to step up and save him.

Meet Graham Nesbitt

graham nesbitt wearing glasses
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Graham Nesbitt knows how important it is to keep kids from getting into trouble in his local community of Seaforth, Ontario. He ran the local ice arena, but went above and beyond for the community.

Nesbitt was known for making special exceptions for the community to protect their safety, such as opening the rink at all hours and during harsh snowstorms. It meant a great deal that the kids were skating at his rink instead of hanging out on the streets.

He Was There For Everyone

exterior of seaforth and district community centres
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His son, Joe Nesbitt, told CBC that there wasn’t much that would stop him from opening the rink, “They’d call and say, ‘Is there any way we can get onto the ice before school?'”

Nesbitt continued, “He’d have the arena open at 6:30 a.m., so people could skate. He just wanted kids to be active and busy, not getting into trouble. It was his outlet as a kid and he wanted to pass it on.”

Why Nesbitt Opened The Ice Arena

the ice surface of an arena
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The ice arena meant more to Nesbitt than most could ever imagine. He was there for the community at all times, but some may be wondering why.

His father passed when he was 10-years-old, so he wanted to do it to spend time with his family and lend a hand to the hockey families in his community. “My neighbors and community helped raise me, so I just hoped someday that I could help,” Nesbitt shared.

Why Everyone Will Always Remember Nesbitt

Children in a changing room after an ice hockey practice
Sergei Savostyanov/Getty Images
Sergei Savostyanov/Getty Images

It’s clear that Nesbitt is a driving force for the hockey families in Seaforth and those closest to him know how seriously he took his job. His son Joe reflected on his father’s impact on the community.

“Something my dad’s always taught me is to be kind and helpful and generous to everybody. It just goes to show that thoughtful acts and caring for people, it pays off. It truly paid off for my dad and saved his life,” said Joe Nesbitt.

NHL Stars In Training

Cal O'Reilly #26 of the Phoenix Coyotes and brother Ryan O'Reilly #37 of the Colorado Avalanche race up ice
Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images
Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

It’s a good thing Nesbitt kept the rink open because it was the training ground for a couple of up-and-coming hockey superstars. Brothers Ryan and Cal O’Reilly spent most of their days at Nesbitt’s ice rink.

Ryan is the captain of the St. Louis Blues and led the team to a Stanley Cup victory in 2019. He even brought the trophy back to his hometown. Cal currently plays for the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in the American Hockey League.

Ryan O’Reilly’s Journey To The NHL

Ryan O'Reilly #90 of the St. Louis Blues celebrates with the Conn Smythe Trophy
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Ryan O’Reilly spent the 1990s and early 2000s at Nesbitt’s ice arena training with his older brother. Before becoming captain of the St. Louis Blues, he played for the Colorado Avalanche, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, and the Buffalo Sabres.

After becoming captain for the Blues, he scored 77 points, 28 goals, and 49 assists during the regular season. Then, he won the Conn Smythe Trophy after he and the Blues defeated the Boston Bruins. O’Reilly became the first non-goalie in NHL history to win the Conn Smythe in his first season after being traded.

How Cal O’Reilly Made It To The AHL

Cal O'Reilly #19 of the Buffalo Sabres skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images
Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Cal O’Reilly and his younger brother Ryan spent their childhood playing at Nesbitt’s ice rink by getting in some much-needed training. While he’s currently a free agent on the Lehigh Valley Phantoms in the American Hockey League, he is a prospect for the Philadelphia Flyers.

O’Reilly started out in minor hockey teams and was drafted into the OHL Priority Selection when he was 16-years-old. His wife, Terra Findlay, is a famous French-Canadian figure skater and ice dancer.

Nesbitt Was Always There

Ryan O'Reilly #37 of the Colorado Avalanche skates against his brother Cal O'Reilly #26 of the Phoenix Coyotes
Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images
Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

Bonnie O’Reilly knew that Nesbitt was always there to keep an eye on her sons and the local kids. She was incredibly grateful for him going above and beyond the duties of an ice rink owner.

The small, tight-knit community of Seaforth appreciated Nesbitt’s good deeds, even after he left his job at the ice rink in 2003. He went on to work for Olympia Ice Resurfacing and later the Ontario Recreation Facilities Association.

Nesbitt Gets An Upsetting Diagnosis

A doctor wears a stethoscope
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

According to an interview from CBC, “[Nesbitt] is known all over southwestern Ontario as a good guy to call if your arena ice isn’t coming in right or the resurfacing machine goes wonky.”

Unfortunately, in 2011, he was diagnosed with IgA nephropathy, which is also known as Berger’s disease. He thought that his medication would be able to keep his severe condition under control, but he would need a true miracle to stay alive.

What Is Berger’s Disease?

Structure of the kidney, frontal section of a kidney and ureter
JACOPIN/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
JACOPIN/BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

According to the Mayo Clinic, IgA nephropathy, or Berger’s disease, is a type of kidney disease where an antibody called immunoglobulin A (IgA) builds up in the kidneys.

This usually leads to inflammation that can hinder the kidneys’ ability to filter waste from the blood. Nesbitt was able to successfully keep his Berger’s disease under control with medication until 2019, but after that time it was clear that he would need to undergo a kidney transplant.

Getting An Organ Isn’t Guaranteed

Two organ donor application leaflets are shown
Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images
Leon Neal/AFP via Getty Images

Nesbitt wasn’t sure if he would be able to find a kidney donor because it can be a tough process. According to the Health Resources & Services Administration, over 107,000 people are on the current transplant waiting list.

Only 39,000 transplants were completed within the last year and about 17 people lose their lives each day waiting to be taken off the waiting list. Kidneys are the most common organ on the list, followed by liver, heart, and lung.

Time To Step Up

ryan and bonnie o'reilly after he won the stanley cup
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After the town of Seaforth found out about Nesbitt’s need for a kidney transplant, they rallied around him to help in any way they could. There were many who offered to be his donor, but it needed to be a perfect match.

Lucky for Nesbitt, he would soon find a kidney donor. Bonnie O’Reilly got tested and was given the all-clear by the medical staff to give her kidney to Nesbitt. She was more than happy to do so.

The Testing Process

a doctor wearing a stethoscope
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Nesbitt realized he would need the kidney transplant in 2019, but it took a while for him to find a match. O’Reilly and Nesbitt spent months testing and finally matched on November 20, 2020.

Due to the events of that year, they had to hold off on the surgery until March 3, 2021. After the surgery, they had a chance to talk. “We had a moment alone and I felt Graham’s gratitude and that was beautiful for me,” said O’Reilly.

O’Reilly Pays It Forward

a nurse writes on a piece of paper and wears a stethoscope
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Nesbitt’s son Joe recalled what Bonnie O’Reilly told his father about donating her kidney: “What you’ve done for my boys, helping them achieve their goal of playing professional hockey, it’s the least we can do,” she said.

When it was time for Nesbitt’s reaction to the news, he couldn’t have been more excited. “My dad is just blown away by this,” said Joe Nesbitt. This kidney transplant symbolized the strong bond among hockey families that were a part of his rink.

The Surgery Went Well

o'reilly and nesbitt wearing masks and hospital gowns
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The 65-year-old Nesbitt was incredibly thankful for O’Reilly’s good deed. Now, it was time for the kidney transplant. The photo taken of them after surgery showed that everything went as planned.

Nesbitt and O’Reilly posed side by side in their hospital beds giving a big thumbs up. The St. Louis Blues posted the photo to their social media with the caption, “We want to say get well soon to Bonnie O’Reilly, who is recovering from surgery today after donating a kidney to a family friend.”

Everyone Saw Their Story On Social Media

After the St. Louis Blues shared the photo of O’Reilly and Nesbitt, fans were able to see the sweet and caring man who shaped Cal, Ryan, and many other hockey players into the players they are today.

Nesbitt’s wife Pam added a generous post to her Facebook giving a shout out to O’Reilly, “From our family to you and yours Bonnie, thanks for the gift of a lifetime. Your selfless act means more than you’ll ever know.”

Their Story Went Viral

ryan o'reilly speaking into a microphone
St. Louis Blues/Twitter
St. Louis Blues/Twitter

After the St. Louis Blues posted their story on social media, it started to go viral. They shared how selfless both parties were and the public gave them tons of heartwarming messages.

“If it plants a few seeds for other people to consider donating for someone they know or don’t know, that’s super to me,” said O’Reilly. Nesbitt added, “It’s a great way to promote the program and the transplant team is very happy.” Nesbitt jokingly shared that his new favorite NHL team is the St. Louis Blues.

On Their Way To Recovery

o'reilly and nesbitt at the hospital
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Participating in a kidney transplant can be one of the most daunting things someone has to go through in their life. The surgery proved to be a success and both O’Reilly and Nesbitt are recovering quite nicely after almost one month.

Nesbitt and his family couldn’t be more thankful for the help he received, not only from O’Reilly, but from all of Seaforth. “Your team growing up, you become more than just a team, you kind of become family. It’s kind of left me speechless,” said Nesbitt.

An Emotional Zoom Call

o'reilly and nesbitt on a zoom call
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In order to check up on each other, Nesbitt and O’Reilly kept in touch through Zoom. Nesbitt continues to tell her how appreciative he is of her.

“No words can really express the thanks,” Nesbitt said with an emotional tone to O’Reilly. She replied, “Well, I feel it, so that’s good.” Even as the two patients continue to recover from the kidney transplant, they will share a special bond with one another for a long time.

O’Reilly Has No Regrets About Her Decision

bonnie o'reilly wearing glasses
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When O’Reilly was given the opportunity to become a kidney donor, she jumped at the chance. She wouldn’t have done it for just anyone and there’s a reason why she did it for Nesbitt.

“He’s one of the many people in my kids’ lives who took the time to care about what they wanted and lifted them up. So, I thought, wow, here’s an opportunity I can pay back to let Graham know I appreciated what he did for my kids’ lives,” said O’Reilly.