A Jets fan to the end
Winnipegger’s death sparks wave of online support
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He was known online as Ice Dragon, a bright and funny young man whose love and loyalty for his hometown Winnipeg Jets ran deep.
But behind Justin Deleau’s charming on-screen persona in numerous online hockey chat rooms and message boards was a fierce personal battle, one he divulged to hockey fans from around the world in a startling post late last month.
“Figure if I’m dying I might as well give y’all a chance to meet me if you want,” Justin typed on April 28 as he lay in palliative care at the Grace Hospice.
“Anyways thanks for everything you guys. I’ve never felt so loved by a community. I’ll keep cheering on the Jets no matter what. I love you guys!! Pour one out for me at Portage and Main when the boys do win the Cup.”
Tragically, those face-to-face meetings never happened. Justin, 32, died two days later.
“The thing with him is that, despite everything he went through, he still kept a brave face,” his father, Marc Deleau, told the Free Press on Wednesday.
He called his son “an inspiration to everyone who knew him.”
“(Justin) didn’t let anybody get down about it, especially himself,” Marc said. “He did it all with a smile, and showed the kind of strength I don’t think I could have had.”
Justin was first diagnosed with colorectal cancer in January 2019, the same disease which killed his mother when he was 17. It eventually led to the removal of his colon and rectum five months later along with numerous debilitating rounds of chemotherapy. Unfortunately, it was found to have spread to both his liver (January 2020) and left lung (November 2021), which required additional surgeries, and then to his right lung and then his abdomen last year.
“Today’s been so hard as I try to wrap my head around the thought of leaving this world. Stress, anxiety, depression, and fear all have been at their highest levels,” Justin wrote in an online diary in February 2022 after being told he was terminal.
“I’m going to try and take things one day at a time. So many things to think about and arrange. I’m going to start a bucket list. I need to live each day to its fullest. Enjoy the time I have left with the family and friends that have been there for me.”
At his funeral service earlier this month, Justin was laid to rest wearing a Jets jersey, as per his final wishes. There’s also been an outpouring of online support for his grieving family, proving that social media isn’t always a toxic cesspool and, in fact, can do much good. That includes messages and phone calls from fellow Jets fans as far away from Japan who got to know him online.
“His passion for the game and his unwavering support for the Jets was truly admirable. I didn’t Know Justin but I will miss his infectious online enthusiasm and his ability to bring a smile to everyone’s face (especially in the Jets subreddit). He seemed like a kind-hearted person who always had a positive outlook on life,” wrote Leighton Janis.
“Justin was an amazing member of the Jets community,” said Dusty Nerpin.
“Jets fans fly together,” added Delana Katrella.
All of which has proved heartwearming to the family, which includes Justin’s sister and two brothers.
“It’s been great to see how many people’s lives he touched and how many people cared about him,” said Marc.
Hockey was the common bond. Justin’s first-ever Jets game came in 1995, just as the organization was on the verge of re-locating to Arizona.
“My father and I took him. He was five years old,” said Marc. “After that, he didn’t have a hometown team, but he was so interested in hockey. And when the Jets came back, well, he was right on board right away.”
The family attended numerous games in person, and Justin’s favourite players came to be Connor Hellebuyck and Kyle Connor. Last year, in what would be the last game he’d ever attend, the organization gave him an autographed Connor jersey presented by Mick-E-Moose after learning what he was going through, thanks to several other fans who contacted them.
Nothing could re-capture the magic of the 2018 run to the Western Conference Final, or even the following playoff pursuit in 2019 when Justin actually appeared in a Free Press photo dressed as a Zombie during the “Whiteout” street party.
“Hopefully my body keeps itself together long enough for me to watch the Jets win the Stanley Cup!” Justin wrote last August.
Marc never left his son’s side for the last three weeks of his life. Among the things they did together was watch the Jets play the Vegas Golden Knights in the first round of the playoffs, where they eventually lost in five games.
“He was very vocal about how he felt about the team. But he was an obvious fan no matter what, win or lose,” said Marc. “As hard as those final weeks were, it was nice having that time with him. To be able to talk to him and spend time with him. Now it’s just about trying to deal with him not being here anymore.”
The family is now in the planning stages of a celebration of life, which they hope to hold next month. Many of Justin’s online friends have donated money to the cause through a GoFundMe that has collected $3,425 toward an ultimate goal of $5,000 as of Wednesday. The money will be put toward that event, along with a headstone.
“We want to give people a chance to tell their stories about what Justin meant to them,” said Marc.
Justin also made sure to send a powerful message in his online farewell, one he hoped would resonate loudly with other young men who might be reading.
“Don’t forget to get checked by a doctor! I was only 27 when I was diagnosed, so don’t act like you’re too young,” he wrote. “Anyways I’m tired now, I’ll see ya around! Love, your friendly neighborhood Ice Dragon.”
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.