As Ryan Getzlaf loads a baby seat into the trunk of his white Mercedes S63, a pack of young fans swarms him in hopes of an autograph, a photo or maybe just a star-struck high-five. In black slacks, a grey zip-up sweater and flip-flops that seem standard issue for NHL players in warm-market paradise, the 29-year-old millionaire many times over obliges the frantic requests. All of the young boys were playing Sunday morning hockey at a two-rink arena a couple miles down the road from Disneyland, and stuck around because they knew the Ducks were practising on the main ice. After signing a few baseball caps and T-shirts, and leaning in for a couple of photos, Getzlaf politely excuses himself from the autographing duties that come with being one of the league’s biggest stars. “Thank you very much, Mr. Getzlaf,” says the mother of one of the boys. “That’s very kind of you.”
He smiles—“No problem”—and folds his six-foot-four frame into the driver’s seat. Minutes later, on an unusually rainy morning in southern California, Getzlaf rolls through a green valley toward the Pacific Ocean, heading to the home of Hawken Miller, his 18-year-old buddy who, at that moment, is working on his applications to college. In a bedroom plastered with San Diego Chargers paraphernalia and boasting an impressive collection of special-edition Star Wars LEGO models, Miller meticulously edits the words on his computer screen.
On the surface, the two have very little in common. One is a Stanley Cup champion, two-time Olympic gold medallist and a Hart Trophy finalist. The other is a high-school senior, the editor-in-chief of his school newspaper and a member of the model UN. Ryan Getzlaf makes nearly $9 million a year as captain of the Anaheim Ducks. Hawken Miller manages the stats for his high school’s football team. Miller is five-foot-two, weighs in at 110 lb. and has shaggy hair—which is at least one thing he has over the mostly bald Ducks captain. But despite the 10-plus years and worlds of experience that separate them, Getzlaf and Miller are close friends. Getzlaf is polite but rehearsed answering questions about winning the Stanley Cup, playing for Team Canada, and the Ducks’ current season—but he lights up when the conversation turns to Hawken Miller.
They met four years ago when Getzlaf and his wife, Paige, were looking to get involved in a local charity and learned about Duchenne muscular dystrophy—a disease that destroys muscle cells, leading to the painful degeneration of the body. It largely affects boys—about one in every 3,500—who generally live to see their late teens or early 20s but are known to die much sooner. When Getzlaf and his wife were told that a local couple was looking for support to raise awareness and money to help find a cure for Duchenne, they quickly arranged a meeting. The Getzlafs had just had their first son, Ryder, and empathized with the fear and agony faced by a parent of a child affected by Duchenne. But what started as an act of celebrity benevolence quickly turned into a tight relationship between two families and a race against the ticking clock that threatens to take away the most impressive young man Ryan Getzlaf has ever known.