ROCHESTER, Minn. (WCCO) — As they watch their daughter Shannon’s hockey team play, Jen and Dan O’Hara are all smiles.
In Rochester, everyone has heard of the player known as “Shannon the Cannon.”
“To a lot of people,” said her sister Erin, “she’s an inspiration.”
On this night, Jen and Dan are watching a team named after their daughter play in a tournament named after their daughter to benefit a foundation named after their daughter — all of it inspired by their daughter and her fight for a life that was determined to matter.
“You had to hold on to a little bit of hope,” Jen said. “Because how would you get out of bed every day if you didn’t?”
You hear all the time in sports about people who face adversity and use it to inspire others. This time is no different.
“It’s amazing,” Erin said. “Obviously it was a horrible thing, but we got a lot of good things out of it.”
Three months before her 13th birthday, Shannon started complaining of a headache.
“They diagnosed her with an inoperable, incurable brain tumor,” Jen said. “She told us, ‘I can’t believe I’m not going to get to be a mom. I can’t believe I’m not going to be a grandma. I can’t believe I might not go to high school.'”
“It’s a death sentence,” Dan said. “They have no cure. And so there isn’t much hope to sell. But yet, she found an amazing amount of hope. Every day.”
“She was doing what she wanted to be doing,” Jen said.
And that meant playing hockey.
“Her nickname, ‘Shannon the Cannon,’ is actually in jest, because she did not have a very hard shot,” said Dan. “But she scored a lot of cheesy goals around the net, and if you’re a coach, you love that kid!”
Right away, Dan and Jen started a blog to keep family and friends updated on Shannon’s fight. It soon gained a much bigger following. As Shannon inspired others on the ice, her parents’ writing did the same thing on the Internet.
“I would post something, and I would get immediate feedback from somebody, that ‘wow, that really struck with me,'” said Dan.
Shannon’s impact was so great, Rochester renamed all of its girls tournaments after her — the Shannon Cup — and money raised at the tournaments go to benefit the other thing Dan and Jen started — the Shannon O’Hara Foundation.
“It’s pretty dang cool,” Jen said.
Seven months after her diagnosis, Shannon’s team won the Hopkins Tournament. She said it was the greatest day of her life.
“It was just pure happiness,” said teammate Sam Jones. “We didn’t worry about anything else.”
“We went from maybe seeing what the end looks like to holding a trophy in a November hockey tournament,” Dan said. “I mean, that was a fantastic swing of events.”
They swung back even faster. A couple weeks later, she was too sick to play. Her teammates went from playing with her, to playing for her.
“They took Shannon’s #9 jersey and they hung it on their bench at every game,” said Jen. “And they had her name announced when they played in a tournament, and they went on quite a run at the end of the season.”
They made it to regionals, further than they’d ever made it before.
“And they were holding Shannon’s #9 jersey as well on the ice with them when they celebrated,” Jen said.
When her teammates returned to the ice last season, they had a new name: The Cannons. And they won the state tournament –- the first for a Rochester girls youth team.
“They were so proud,” said Jen. “They couldn’t wait to text us and call us.”
As is tradition, every state champion in Minnesota gets to proudly display their jersey at the Xcel Energy Center for the next year. And when it came time to decide which jersey would go in the case, there was no doubt about whose it would be: #9, Shannon the Cannon.
“They felt like they had an angel that helped them,” said Jen. “Helped them win a state title.”
Three weeks ago, the O’Hara’s observed the two-year anniversary of Shannon’s death.
“She lifted that trophy at the tournament” in Hopkins, said Dan. “And 54 days later she was gone. The end was not pretty and never will be. But the nine-month victory tour we had with her after diagnosis was really special. I mean, it was an amazing time in our lives.”
Shannon never saw her team’s incredible run, but was very much a part of it. And what’s happened since. The victory tour hasn’t ended.
“One thing we’ve learned about grief is whatever you’re feeling is OK,” said Jen. “If it’s anger, if it’s sadness, if it’s the desire to do something about it.”
The anger and sadness are still there, but the desire to do something about it is what dominates Jen and Dan’s life now — doing charity work, holding fundraisers, giving speeches, continuing Shannon’s fight. Every year, the Foundation gives two college scholarships to Rochester high school players.
“She has left a very big legacy,” said teammate Claire Creedon.
“We still to this day still don’t have a number 9,” said Cannon’s coach Brad Jones. “That’s always Shannon’s number on this team.”
Dan and Jen also have now turned the blog into a book. They believe if it can help others through similar situations, maybe more good can come of this beyond the Shannon Cup and the foundation and the charity work and the state championship and speeches and scholarships and awareness and inspiration.
“All these silver linings,” said Jen. “I mean, of course, we’d give every one of them back to still have Shannon. But that’s not one of our options. So if good can come from her story, our journey, kids persevering, love of hockey, all of that is beautiful.”
“She’d be pretty darn proud,” said Dan. “Because her life is mattering.”