YouTube

High-schooler ‘sticks it to cancer’ with surprise comeback

1 Comment

NBC Sports is celebrating Hockey Day in America with an NHL Sunday tripleheader on NBC and NBCSN, as well as a collection of stories and features which explore hockey’s impact and influence across the U.S.

It was standing room only in the rink, with those in attendance unaware of the surprise that was to be announced in a few moments. Derek Zacchino was lined up on the blue line in full uniform next to his Bethpage High School teammates prepared to take part in the ceremonial puck drop for a benefit game in his honor.

It had been a trying three months for the junior defenseman and his family. A surprise diagnosis after the first practice of the year changed the entire season. Now here he was inside the Town of Oyster Bay Ice Skating Center holding a secret that only few people there knew.

Hours before the benefit game Derek learned that partaking in the pre-game puck drop wouldn’t be his only on-ice duties that evening.

***

September 4 on Long Island was a hot one. Temperatures reached the 90s the day before many schools opened in the area. That Tuesday also marked the first day of practice for the Bethpage Eagles hockey team.

The 2018-19 season was to be one of transition for the Eagles. Despite losing the league’s top goaltender and scorer, and some of their top defensemen to graduation, they were hoping to build off last season’s run where they won their conference, reached the Nassau County final, and participated in the New York State tournament.

Derek left that first practice early feeling ill. He found himself experiencing double vision and ended up vomiting in the dressing room. Having experienced headaches over the summer, he chalked it up to being related to concussions he’d suffered in the past. One week and numerous tests later, he found himself on the way to Cohen Children’s Medical Center after doctors discovered a large mass.

“Sorry I couldn’t come to practice tonight, I had to go to the hospital. Turns out I have fluid on my brain,” was the text Derek wrote to Eagles head coach Jeff Schmier, who initially thought he was feeling dehydrated.

Doctors had found a tumor on Derek’s brain and were able to take most of it after emergency surgery the next day. After some tests, it was discovered the tumor was malignant and he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an “aggressive type of cancer that can occur in the brain or spinal cord,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

“[My wife and I] were just numb. I just thought life as I know it was ended,” said Derek’s dad, Don. “If something takes Derek away from me, I don’t see how I can ever be the same, let alone move on.”

But seeing Derek’s attitude after surgery and the diagnosis, especially as his concern focused on when he could play hockey again and not what he’s been through, helped Don and his wife Dawn deal with the situation.

“He never complained,” said Don. “He never showed sadness or [asked] ‘why me?’ That’s what carried us through. People ask me at work all the time, ‘How are you going through with this? You’re amazing.’ I’m not amazing. My son’s amazing. When I grow up, I want to be Derek. He was leading my wife and I in this journey of positivity. He never let us break down, because how could we? It doesn’t seem to be affecting him.”

Following the surgery, a schedule began that featured radiation treatments five times a week and a chemotherapy infusion every Monday. Derek still wanted to attend school, so treatments took place after classes ended for the day. His new challenge also didn’t keep him away from rink. He was still able to attend practices and games just to be around his teammates and help keep a sense of normalcy.

“It wasn’t too hard being away,” said Derek. “It was more tough not being able to play in the games.”

***

As Derek went through his cancer battle, the community rallied around the Zacchinos. Plans were made to turn Bethpage’s Dec. 19 game into a benefit for the hospital, which saw T-shirts featuring the slogan “Stick It To Cancer” sold in large quantities, as well as gift baskets and signed items donated by various NHL teams to be raffled off.

The night that was expected to raise only few hundred dollars ballooned into something bigger.

Once the crowd filed into packed rink, the atmosphere by those in attendance was likened to that of an NHL playoff game. Everyone was there to support Derek, but earlier in the day some surprise news changed the entire feel of the night.

As Derek sat down for his lunch period, Don called with the news that his doctors had cleared him to play that night. Now he had to go the rest of the day without revealing the secret.

When they arrived at the rink later that day, only Derek, his parents, Schmier, and the head coach of the opposing team, Oceanside High School, knew he was playing.

Derek arrived about 90 minutes before the game because he wanted to beat the crowd and say hello to everyone he needed to and then get ready. “I came in and I’ve never seen so many people in such a confined space,” he said. Schmier had arranged to have each team in the league have a representative in attendance, some of whom sent a number of players from their roster.

A former member of the Eagles’ team who now helps out assisted Derek in getting his equipment into the dressing room without anyone noticing. As Schmier did his usual pre-game pep talk, he emphasized to his players the importance of focusing on such a big night, especially as they were facing a 9-0-1 team. He finished by revealing the secret.

“One more thing,” Schmier said to his players. “I have some news that is going to rock your world. Like I say, defense wins it. We have someone that’s going to be joining us playing tonight and I need one of you players not to dress tonight. Talk about it amongst yourselves. Derek’s going to be playing tonight.”

From there the dressing room erupted in cheers, some players even broke down in tears at the news. It was a needed emotional boost for a team that was going through an up-and-down season.

Once the furor died down, Derek started getting ready, but kept getting interrupted by requests from local news stations for interviews. He didn’t really get to settle in until later on, and once he hit the ice he was running on adrenaline.

Still, while he took part in warmups in full uniform and all of his equipment on, no one in the crowd knew he would be playing. It was Dave Schneider, Bethpage superintendent of schools who made the announcement, which resulted in a roar from the crowd.

There was still a game to be played and the Eagles came out gave their best performance of the season, one that was capped by a strong defensive effort in the final moments.

As Bethpage held a 4-3 lead with under a minute to go and after some penalties, Oceanside found themselves with an empty net and a 5-on-3 advantage. 

“There’s no way I’m getting off this ice,” Derek told Schmier when asked if he wanted to stay on for the final shift.

A complete 60-minute effort wouldn’t be without some luck. As Oceanside pressed for the tying goal, their best chance clanked off the goal post with seconds remaining. The ensuing face off was tied up in the corner by Bethpage and time ran out with the Eagles immediately surrounding Derek in celebration.

“I have never been involved in a sporting event like that night. It was so emotional,” said Schmier, who still remains impressed at the level his team played at that night. “I’ve watched games since… I actually told them, I don’t ever want to hear that that team was better. I saw what you could do tonight, you have no more excuses because they were capable of that.”

Northwell Health

The game took place two days before Derek’s 17th birthday and the victory only added to a night that was a complete success. By the end, $21,016 (Derek wears No. 16) had been raised for pediatric cancer research at Cohen Children’s Medical Center.

“I don’t think anything really changed me,” said Derek of his cancer experience. “I learned that there’s a lot more good people out there than you think.”

Derek was unable to finish two other games the rest of the season, as the effects of his radiation treatments were too much for his body. His fight wasn’t over yet as there was a second surgery on Feb. 1. Another MRI in January showed doctors that part of the tumor that was left there originally did not go away and it had grown a little. The good news was that the surgeon was confident he could go in and get it, mainly because there was more room between the tumor and the brain than he originally expected.

Pro-active treatments are now being done to prevent the cancer from returning and eventually he’ll begin an oral chemotherapy treatment. The fatigue he experiences from the radiation treatments is expected to wear off by the end of the month and while they’re not focusing on it yet, he should be fully ready to return to the ice next season.

A week after the second surgery, Derek was a guest of New York Rangers defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk during his annual Kancer Jam fundraiser. The two connected thanks to a teacher at Bethpage High School and met after a game at Madison Square Garden in late December.

Shattenkirk wasn’t the only NHL player to reach out. Fellow Long Island native Charlie McAvoy of the Boston Bruins sent a signed jersey, as did Alex Tuch, who got his Vegas Golden Knights teammates to autograph one for Derek.

***

Through this experience, nothing phased Derek. While his family were concerned about his health, he never complained about what he was going through. His only concern was when he’d be able to play hockey again.

“I don’t even think it’s still hit me,” said Derek, who was named after Boston Bruins great Derek Sanderson even though Don is a die-hard Rangers fan. “When I found out that my last surgery went well, as the doctor said, in remission as of right now. I never really freaked out. So I don’t think it’s even hit me that I was diagnosed with it yet, let alone healed.”

“He was never high and low,” said Don. “He’s Derek. This is Derek.”

That was never more evident as the four of us sat for an interview last week and Schmier casually broke the news to Derek that he would be the team’s captain next season.

“I guessed my senior season year would be our best season,” said Derek. “That’s what I’m hoping.”

The Eagles will only graduate four seniors in June, which means the 2019-20 season will feature an upperclassmen-heavy roster. That will be a team led by a motivated captain who has conquered the ultimate obstacle.

“I didn’t know until this happened, the magnitude of [nothing phasing Derek] and really how impressed I am,” said Don. “Looking back, this is Derek’s personality. The strength and the poise, this is a whole other thing.

“Like I say, when I grow up I want to be him.”

Pre-game studio coverage begins at noon ET on NBC with NHL Live, which will be on-site in Hockeytown at The Rink at Campus Martius Park in downtown Detroit, Mich. Liam McHugh and Kathryn Tappen will anchor pre-game, intermission and post-game coverage throughout the day alongside analysts Mike Milbury, Keith Jones and Jeremy Roenick. In addition, Tappen will provide reports and interviews from the Team USA vs. Canada women’s hockey game at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Sunday afternoon.

NBC Hockey Day in America schedule:
N.Y. Rangers at Pittsburgh – NBC – 12:30 p.m. ET (Watch live)
St. Louis at Minnesota – NBC – 3:30 p.m. ET (Watch live)
Philadelphia at Detroit – NBCSN –  6 p.m. ET (Watch live)

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Stuck on zero: Notable NHL players still searching for first goal

Getty
1 Comment

We are a couple of weeks into the 2019-20 NHL season and there have been some surprising players at the top of the goal-scoring leaderboard, including James Neal, Anthony Mantha, Victor Olofsson, Brayden Schenn, and Erik Haula.

Perhaps just as surprising is the list of players still searching for their first goal, fighting through extended early season slumps.

Every player will go through hot streaks and cold streaks over the course of a season, and when those streaks happen now we tend to pay extra attention to them because there is nothing else around them to hide them. A first line player stuck on zero goals after six or seven games will stick out more than a six-or seven-game drought in the middle of March.

Here are eight notable players still trying to find that first goal. We are limiting this to players that have played in at least six games.

William Karlsson, Vegas Golden Knights
Games played entering Tuesday:
6
Shots on goal: 16

After scoring 67 goals over the past two seasons Karlsson has gone six games without a goal to open the 2019-20 season. The good news for him: He started each of the past two seasons with zero goals in his first six games before scoring in his seventh game each year.

Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 14

Barkov has become one of the NHL’s best all-around players over the past couple of years and is one of the reasons for optimism in Florida. He has not scored yet this season but he is doing literally everything else, having already recorded five assists while the Panthers are attempting more than 54 percent of the shot attempts when he is on the ice. Only a matter of time before the puck starts finding the back of the net for him.

Nino Niederreiter, Carolina Hurricanes
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 13

Getting a full season of Niederreiter is a big reason to like the Hurricanes this season. He was a significant addition in the middle of the 2018-19 season and is an outstanding two-way winger that can defend, drive possession, and help create offense. He is still helping to drive possession at an elite rate. He is not a big-time goal-scorer, but he is always a lock for at least 20 goals.

Joe Pavelski, Dallas Stars
Games played entering Tuesday: 7
Shots on goal: 10

The Stars have been one of the league’s most disappointing teams so far and Pavelski might be their most disappointing player through the first seven games. Not only as he failed to score a goal, but only generating 10 shots on goal in seven games is a concerning sign. Some regression had to be expected from his 38-goal campaign a year ago (he had a career-high shooting percentage at age 34, which was never going to be repeated) but this has to be discouraging. He also has just one assist.

Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 21 (combined)

The two recent No. 1 overall picks are two of the most important players on the Devils’ roster from a big picture outlook, and so far both have struggled. Hughes has failed to record a point in his first six games and can not seem to buy a goal. Just another thing that has gone wrong for the Devils in a season where nothing has gone as expected.

Jaden Schwartz, St. Louis Blues
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 6

Schwartz had a bizarre 2018-19 season, struggling through one of the worst regular season performances of his career (mostly due to a terrible shooting percentage) before being unstoppable in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The trouble for Schwartz this season (unlike last season) is he is not yet generating shots.

Milan Lucic, Calgary Flames
Games played entering Tuesday: 6
Shots on goal: 4

The Flames will try to sell you on the idea he is doing exactly what they want, providing physical play and serving as some sort of protection for their stars. But man, zero goals, zero points, only four shots on goal, a lot of penalty minutes, a huge contract, and the guy he was traded for (James Neal) can not stop scoring goals for their biggest rival. There is no way that trade is a win at this point.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

WATCH LIVE: Canadiens vs. Lightning on NBCSN

Leave a comment

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Tuesday’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning. Coverage begins at 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

These Atlantic Division foes meet for the first of four times this season as the Canadiens continue with the third game of their four-game homestand. The Lightning, on the other hand, play away from home for the fifth time in six games this season.

One of the biggest questions for Tampa entering this season was when Brayden Point would re-sign. The 23-year-old is coming off a season in which he set career best marks in goals (41), assists (51) and points (92). On September 23, he signed a three-year contract to stay with the Lightning, the only team he’s played for as he begins his fourth season. Point missed the first three games this season while recovering from off-season hip surgery but made an immediate impact in his season debut, scoring twice against Toronto and adding an assist.

While the Canadiens, who are looking to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years (2017), are coming off an encouraging early-season win, the Lightning, after a record-setting regular season, have already lost as many games this season as they did the entire opening month of last season

Jonathan Drouin played a career-high 81 games last season (tied career high with 53 points). The 2013 third overall pick by Tampa has started this season by recording a point in every game for a total of six points in five games. If he adds to that in this game, he’ll be the fourth Canadiens player in the last 32 seasons to open the year with a point streak of six-plus games.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: Tampa Bay Lightning at Montreal Canadiens
WHERE: Bell Centre
WHEN: Tuesday, Oct. 15, 6 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Lightning-Canadiens stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

LIGHTNING
Steven Stamkos – Brayden Point – Nikita Kucherov
Alex KillornAnthony CirelliMathieu Joseph
Ondrej PalatTyler JohnsonYanni Gourde
Patrick Maroon – Carter Verhaeghe – Luke Witkowski

Victor HedmanErik Cernak
Ryan McDonaghKevin Shattenkirk
Braydon CoburnMikhail Sergachev

Starting goalie: Andrei Vasilevskiy

CANADIENS
Tomas TatarPhillip DanaultBrendan Gallagher
Artturi LehkonenMax DomiJordan Weal
Jonathan Drouin – Jesperi KotkaniemiJoel Armia
Paul ByronNate Thompson – Nick Suzuki

Victor MeteShea Weber
Brett KulakJeff Petry
Ben ChiarotChristian Folin

Starting goalie: Carey Price

MORE: Offseason work paying off for Canadiens’ Drouin

Paul Burmeister will host Tuesday’s coverage on NHL Live alongside analysts Jeremy Roenick and Anson Carter. Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire will call the action from Bell Centre in Montreal, Quebec.

Cup champion Blues visit Trump at White House as full team

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump honored the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues on Tuesday, using the occasion to announce an envoy to Turkey, mention the economy and an agriculture deal with China and laugh off the possibility of impeachment.

For the Blues, it was more of a last chance to celebrate the first title in franchise history than a political statement. Like previous NHL champions, they decided to keep with the long-held tradition of visiting the president at the White House amid teams from the NBA and other leagues either declining or not receiving an invitation or being disinvited by Trump.

St. Louis has a heavy concentration of Canadians and just one American still on the roster from the group that beat the Boston Bruins in the Cup Final. Every returning player from the Cup champions took the tour, met with Trump and was present for the ceremony in the Rose Garden.

”No matter what we do, we do it as a group,” alternate captain Alex Steen said. ”I think that’s how we won. We’re a very tight-knit group.”

Trump veered off into talk about bringing soldiers home from overseas and the stock market and revealed Vice President Mike Pence was traveling to Turkey to try to reach a ceasefire deal. When he circled back to the Blues, he went through their improbable run from last place in the league to champions with nods to Steen, owner Tom Stillman, captain Alex Pietrangelo, goaltender Jordan Binnington, forward Jaden Schwartz – who he called ”Jason” – and playoff MVP Ryan O'Reilly.

”Being able to see (the Oval) Office and get a tour of the White House, it doesn’t get much better than that,” said Schwartz, who acknowledged he might have a new nickname. ”This is (something) you’ll remember forever.”

Trump even mentioned the Blues adopting Laura Branigan’s 1982 hit “Gloria” as their victory song, and the U.S. Marine Band played the team into the ceremony with that tune. Young fan Laila Anderson, who was the team’s inspiration while she fought a rare auto-immune disease, got her own mention.

”You inspired the Blues all season, and today you continue to inspire all Americans,” Trump said. ”We all know your story.”

Stillman, who presented Trump with a No. 45 Blues jersey, called it a ”light-hearted, fun kind of celebration.” He echoed Steen’s sentiments about why the entire team showed up – a departure from when goaltender Braden Holtby and forward Brett Connolly skipped the 2018 champion Washington Capitals’ visit in March in support of teammate Devante Smith-Pelly.

”I think this team acts as a team in everything they do,” Stillman said. ”They stick together. By and large, (I) like to keep politics and sports separate. This is a matter of a traditional honor, being invited to the White House by the presidency. It’s something you do. I’m really proud of our group for all coming together and having a good time of it, as well.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman; Pence’s wife, Karen; and Republican Sens. Roy Blunt and Josh Hawley of Missouri were among those in attendance for the half-hour ceremony.

Coach Craig Berube stressed the notion of the Blues’ playoff run as a team effort and brushed off Trump’s comment that the pressure was off after winning.

”We won the Stanley Cup, I think, once we got our team working together and playing together,” Berube said. ”When you play as a team, day in and day out – hard – you’re going to be hard to beat. So that’s what it basically boiled down to. These guys all came together as a team and played for each other, and we ended up being champions.”

The Blues paraded down the streets of St. Louis, raised their championship banner, donated a Cup ring to the Hockey Hall of Fame and capped it all off by going to the White House. Now, players are eager to move on to trying to do it all again.

”It’s a new year and new challenges and experiences,” Binnington said. ”We kind of still have this stuff lingering around, but obviously it’s positive and it’s amazing to experience that. But at the same time, yeah, it’s back to work and simplify things a little bit. It’ll be nice.”

Quick’s continued struggles put Kings in tough spot

Getty
2 Comments

The Los Angeles Kings have a lot of question marks right now, but the biggest one might involve starting goalie Jonathan Quick and whether or not they can get him back to playing a winning brand of hockey. It is something he has not done since the start of last season when his play suddenly fell off a cliff in what would turn out to be — by far — the worst season of his career.

Things have not gotten any better this season where he has given up 19 goals in his first three starts (all Kings losses).

It is expected that backup Jack Campbell will get the start on Tuesday night when the Kings host the Carolina Hurricanes. It would be noteworthy because this is not a back-to-back situation. It is a home game against a top team — and one that is very dangerous offensively — and is the exact type of situation that you would expect a team to play their starting goalie.

But given the way their starter has played, that almost seems like an impossible option if winning is the primary objective.

Coach Todd McLellan recently expressed confidence in Quick, and it would also be fair to point out that the Kings’ defensive play in front of their goalies has been lacking for more than a year now. These are not the possession dominating, defensively smothering Kings that were winning Stanley Cups between 2012 and 2014. They are an older, slower team that is lacking in talent all over the ice. And while Campbell was in net for the Kings’ only two wins this season, he hasn’t exactly posted great individual numbers either.

But the fact remains that 19 goals against in three games to start a season is an almost unprecedented run of futility. The only other goalies since 1979 that have started a season that poorly were Wendell Young, Eddie Mio, Tony Esposito, and Grant Fuhr. And while the latter two names are Hall of Famers, it is important to remember all four of those performances came in the 1980s at the height of the NHL’s goal-scoring peak.

The Kings would almost certainly like to write this off as a bad slump and the perfect storm of circumstances to result in the worst stretch of Quick’s otherwise solid (and at times spectacular) career. If it were just these three games it might be easier to do that. That, however, is not the case. This has been happening for more than a year, while the other goalies on his own team (Campbell and Cal Petersen) have outperformed him.

So what can the Kings do here?

In the short-term, they have to keep playing the goalie that gives them the best chance to win, and right now that is Campbell.

But big picture?

The Kings have an interesting situation unfolding in net with Campbell and Petersen both signed for two more years after this one, while Petersen’s contract starting next year is a one-way deal. And while that only impacts the salary he makes if he plays in the AHL, it is still notable to see his contract structured in such a way.

With the Kings seemingly trying to rebuild (or needing to rebuild) a trade is something that should be explored. The problem is the market would seem to be extremely limited given the makeup of Quick’s contract. He is still signed for three more seasons after this one at a salary cap hit of $5.8 million per season, a steep price for a soon-to-be 34-year-old goalie whose best days are almost certainly behind him. What contending team is going to be in a position to take that on? The catch with that is after this season he only has $8.5 million in actual salary (over three years) remaining on his contract. But is that enough to entice a team to take that on?

If that does not get anywhere, there is the buyout option over the summer. According to CapFriendly the Kings would be on the hook for salary cap hits of $3.3 million, $3.8 million, and $4.3 million over the next three years, before $1 million cap hits between 2023 and 2026. The Kings already have a few million in dead cap money going to Dion Phaneuf’s buyout through 2023. If they bought out Quick, they would have more than $6 million in salary cap space going to plays not on the roster over the next three years.

The third option: Simply hope. Hope that he is fully healthy (an issue at times last season) and can get back to playing at an acceptable level for a starter so they can either move him, or give themselves a chance to win. That, however, would require a dramatic turnaround from what we have seen from him over the past 12 months.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.