June 11, 2014 at 4:36 PM ET
More than anything, Bobby Ackerman wanted to infuse his love of hockey into his newborn daughter.
But two months ago, Madison died at 4 months of age after she accidentally suffocated in her sleep. Ackerman never got the chance to take her to a New York Rangers game as he had planned — or have her wear the tiny Henrik Lundqvist jersey he had bought her.
When hockey fans heard about Ackerman's story, they rallied around him and did what they could to show their support for the grieving dad. Together they raised $3,500 and made it possible for Ackerman to head to Game 4 in the Stanley Cup finals on Wednesday in New York.
“Hockey fans kind of act as one big family, no matter what. At the end of the day, we’re all these people who love the sport,” Ackerman told TODAY.com. “Everybody came together to tell me that everything is going to be all right, and they’re the only thing keeping me going right now.”
Ackerman’s story caught the attention of hockey fans after a photo of him holding up a sign at a Rangers NHL playoffs game went viral. “In memory of my daughter Madison,” said the sign, which featured two photos of the infant. The Lundqvist jersey hung from the bottom.
Ackerman, 25, made the sign two days after his daughter’s funeral.
When Shawn Revell, an administrator for a Rangers fan site on Facebook, heard about Ackerman’s story, “my heart just completely broke.”
“Some of the other admins and I were talking and we said, look, there’s got to be something we could do for this guy,” said Revell, the father of a young daughter himself.
The answer came as the Rangers began to advance in the NHL playoffs. Revell created a GoFundMe page to help raise money to send Ackerman to a Stanley Cup game. But he first, he told him to stay off Facebook.
“I didn’t want him to see that we were trying to do this and have us fail miserably,” he said. “This guy just lost his daughter. I didn’t want to crush his morale anymore.”
But the fans raised one-third of their $3,000 goal within the first 24 hours. They relied on social media to spread the word further and began reaching out to individual Rangers through Twitter.
Eventually, several members of the team, including Derek Dorsett, Mats Zuccarello, Justin Falk and David Lenevu, relayed the fundraising link through their Twitter accounts.
Donations continued to pour in, including those from fans of the New Jersey Devils, Los Angeles Kings and other rival teams.
“Hockey fans as a whole took this story and they really made this possible,” Revell said. “They did it. I don’t really have words to describe how amazing this is.”
The tipping point came when a $1,500 donation was made by a nationally known individual who wanted to remain anonymous. “He’s pretty popular in the New York area,” was all that Revell would reveal.
In total, the group raised $3,500, enough to send Ackerman to a Stanley Cup game as well as buy him another jersey, this one with Madison’s name on it and the No. 4 to represent “forever.”
Ackerman was stunned when he learned about the effort. His shock was evident Wednesday as he headed to Madison Square Garden to watch the Rangers face off against the Kings.
“I still don’t even believe I’m on the train on the way to the game right now,” he said. “I’m just trying to find the words. All I can say is thank you to everyone. The fact that everybody in the hockey community can come together for someone that they don’t even know? I don’t even know what to say right now.”
Ackerman said Madison died on April 11 after accidentally suffocating among blankets and pillows while she was asleep at the home of her mother, Ackerman's ex-girlfriend. He said the support of hockey fans has helped him immensely over the past two months.
“It’s clearly the only thing that has kept me going," he said. "I don’t know how to react half the time. I want to say thanks to everyone. This all has been overwhelming to say the least."