Co Antrim teen Ethan McLean's dream comes true as he fist bumps ice hockey idol during US trip
A Co Antrim boy who suffers from a life-limiting illness has met his ice hockey hero during a dream trip to the US.
Ballymena 11-year-old Ethan McLean's passion for the game was ignited five years ago when he watched the Belfast Giants play for the very first time.
His parents Andy and Yvette were always on the lookout for new hobbies for their son, who was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy when he was just 18 months old.
"He finds he can get rid of a lot of frustration through ice hockey because he's shouting and cheering and is basically a bit of a mad kid at the games - he loves it," Andy explained.
Since 2014 Ethan has met a host of NHL players in the US, but on Tuesday he got to share a fist bump with his favourite Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby at the PPG Paints Arena.
"Ethan has amassed a lot of signed merchandise and pucks for his bedroom," proud dad Andy explained.
"But watching him meet his idol was something else.
"His condition means it's difficult for him to move his muscles, so watching his big smiles was really special for us."
There is no cure for the severe muscle-wasting condition, which has left Marvel movie fan Ethan reliant on a wheelchair.
His parents understand all too well that their son's decreasing mobility will soon make air travel impossible.
"We have a relationship with the Atlanta Gladiators, so we came out to see them play again, but Ethan really wanted to see the Penguins, so we made a surprise visit," Andy said.
One of the club's former players Bobby Farnham currently plays for the Belfast Giants.
At the same time they made the 600-mile road trip, hockey fans flocked to social media to bombard the club with messages about the imminent arrival of one of their biggest fans.
"They let him watch the Penguins warm up from the side of the ice and he got to fist-bump the players as they came off," Andy said.
"They presented him with Penguins gifts and the team went on to win 7-1 against the Philadelphia Flyers."
However, the night got even better for Ethan, who picked up another signed puck for his huge collection.
"We were waiting around the locker room to spot some of the players and out came Sid," Andy said. "Ethan was holding back tears and was speechless at one point, but he did end up chatting away and got lots of photographs. They talked about the game and Sid was asking all about Ethan's big trip."
After signing his hockey stick and gifting it to Ethan, Sid took him into the changing rooms for even more photos.
"He was just amazing with Ethan," Andy said.
"After our goodbyes, we headed back to our hotel and Ethan held on to the stick like it was £1m - it is to him."
As the McLean family prepared to watch the Nashville Predators take on the Calgary Flames at the Bridgestone Arena last night, they thanked everyone in the ice hockey fraternity, including players, clubs and fans.
"There's a bit of a battle going on the east coast of America to see what the clubs can do for Ethan. Between being off school and getting to meet his NHL idols, he's certainly living the dream. We couldn't have asked for anything more," Andy said.