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

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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.

Where it went wrong for Predators, and how they could fix it

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There has been a changing of the guard in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins? Out without winning a single game between them.

The Winnipeg Jets, a Western Conference Finalist a year ago and a popular Stanley Cup pick this season? They are finished.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Now the Nashville Predators, one of the top teams in the Western Conference for a couple of years now, have joined them. Just like the Jets, it probably should not be a huge surprise to see them go out as early as they did because something just seemed to be off with this team for much of the season, and especially in the second half.

It’s not hard to find the biggest culprit in their demise this season, either, and it begins with an inconsistent offense that was dragged down by the league’s worst power play unit. It was a unit that hit rock bottom in their Round 1 loss against the Dallas Stars.

To say it was bad would be an understatement.

It wasn’t just bad, it was historically bad. The type of performance that would make even an objective third party with no rooting interest scream at the TV at its overall incompetence.

After finishing the regular season converting on just 12.9 of their power play opportunities, one of the worst marks the NHL has seen over the past 15 years, the Predators went 0-for-the-series against Dallas, failing to score on even one of their 15 power play attempts. This is not something that just happens. The NHL has tracked power play success rates as far back as the 1933-34 season, and the Predators were just the 11th team during that time to get at least 15 power play opportunities in the playoffs and fail to score a single goal. You probably will not be shocked to learn that none of those 11 teams advanced beyond Round 1. You don’t need a great power play to win the Stanley Cup, but you need to get something out of it on occasion.

The Predators got nothing, continuing what turned out to be a season-long trend.

Dallas’ PK deserves a lot of credit here, and especially starting goalie Ben Bishop, but Nashville’s struggles on the power play weren’t a new thing in this series, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest it wasn’t just a run of bad luck — it was simply a bad unit that needs drastically improved.

Not only did they have the NHL’s lowest success rate, but they were only 19th in the league at generating shot attempts on the power play and even worse (24th) at actually getting those attempts on net. If you can’t generate shots, and if you can’t get them on net when you do, you’re not going to score many goals.

Now comes the question on how to address it.

Injuries were a big problem for the Predators throughout the season, with Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, P.K, Subban, and Kyle Turris all missing significant action, and when Turris was on the ice, his production took a cliff dive. It is worth wondering if they are in need of another big-time forward. Forsberg and Arvidsson are outstanding, but they might still need another impact player up front. Maybe a full season from Mikael Granlund will help (he was mostly silent after coming over from the Minnesota Wild in a pre-deadline trade), but even he is not really a player that is going to put the fear of God in an opposing defense. He is very similar to what the Predators’ forward group is already made of — really good and really productive players, but not really a game-changing, impact talent.

If there is one thing to be said about general manager David Poile it is that he is not afraid to swing for the fences in trades. He has made several blockbusters over the past few years and it has played a significant role in building the roster the Predators have today. Would he be willing to make another one, and would he consider dipping into his pool of star defenders and flipping one for another impact talent up front to help strengthen an offense that went stale this year and a power play unit that collapsed on itself from the very beginning of the year?

He already did it once when he traded Seth Jones to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Ryan Johansen, and it might be worth at least considering again. It is a delicate balance to strike because the Predators’ defense, especially their top-four of P.K. Subban, Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, and Mattias Ekholm is a huge part of what has made the team so good. But it is also a very clear strength and could be used to maybe help address what is now looking like a pretty significant weakness.

The other option is to keep your All-Star defense, shed salary elsewhere on the roster (Turris, if you think he is done as a top-six performer; maybe a Craig Smith or Nick Bonino?) and try to position yourself for a run at an Artemi Panarin or Jeff Skinner in free agency.

Whatever path they choose, it would be awfully difficult to come back next season with the same collection of forwards after they struggled so much this season and helped assemble such a dreadful power play unit. They simply need another finisher somewhere on the roster that can bring a level of consistency to the offense and improve a power play that failed the team all season.

Related: Stars eliminate Predators in overtime thriller

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.

Gallant responds to ‘clown’ DeBoer for ‘chirping’ comment

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The war of words in the Vegas Golden Knights-San Jose Sharks series has now extended to the coaches, and friends, things are getting spicy.

On Monday Sharks coach Peter DeBoer was critical of his counterpart, Gerard Gallant, for “chirping” at Sharks players during the series, saying: “I don’t know if it works in our favor. I mean, there’s still chatter. Their coach is chattering. He’s probably doing the most chattering. He’s talking to our players constantly during the game, which I haven’t seen before.”

DeBoer went on to call the chatter, “ridiculous.”

On Tuesday, just hours before the decisive Game 7 (10 p.m. ET; NBCSN; Live Stream), Gallant was asked about DeBoer’s comments and responded not only in great detail about the incidents, but by also calling DeBoer a clown.

“I really don’t want to talk about that, but I think I’m going to have to a little bit,” said Gallant. “For that clown to say that in the paper yesterday, it’s not right.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

From there, Gallant explained when and why he was chattering from the bench.

“There might have been two incidents that happened, and I’ll tell you both incidents,” Gallant began.

Logan Couture, I thought it was an embellishment, so I’m yelling at the referee. Not Logan Couture. The other one, in Game 2, Evander Kane, he is yelling at Ryan Reaves between the bench. Evander yells at me, he says, ‘hey coach, when are you going to send your big guy out on the ice and play him more than four minutes?’ I said, ‘he’s played 10 minutes every game and he’s going to play a lot more.’ Those are the two times. If I’m going to be a chirper and a loudmouth, I think people know me as a coach and respect me as a coach. If he’s going to yap about that, that’s a little unclassy for me.”

The trash talking in the series began with Reaves and Kane having a very public back-and-forth, complete with Kane referring to Reaves as “the muffin man” after their Game 3 fight and Reaves cracking jokes about Joe Thornton‘s age and vision.

This is only the Golden Knights’ second year in the NHL, but having already played the Sharks in the playoffs each year, and having some wild regular season matchups in between, it is very clear they have their first true rival.

The handshake line on Tuesday night, no matter who wins, should be an interesting one.

Related: Trash talk between Reaves, Kane almost as good as their fight

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.

Pressure once again on Babcock, Maple Leafs in Game 7

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Trying to pick the winner of a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs is completely futile. It is there that one of the most random sports, at its most random time of year, descends into its most random madness where anything and everything can happen. That unpredictability is a big part of what makes it so great and captivating.

It doesn’t really matter what happened in the previous six games of the series, or at any other point in the season because Game 7s usually come down to which goalie plays the best game for 60 minutes, or which team gets the right bounce at the right time. Those are things that are just impossible to predict before the game begins. You just have to watch and see how it all plays out.

With that said, I have no idea what is going to happen between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN; live stream) , but I do know this much — the Maple Leafs better win.

Don’t care how. Don’t care why. Don’t care what the score is. They just need to win.

They better win for the short-term reputation of their core, and they better win for the long-term reputation of their head coach.

I’m not going to go as far as to say Mike Babcock is coaching for his job on Tuesday night, because there is literally no indication of that. Plus, deciding the fate of your coach based on one game is kind of a foolish thing to do anyway. At this point he is either your coach, or he is not.

But at some point these people have to win something.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

And I’m not even talking about the Eastern Conference or the Stanley Cup itself.

Just something.

A playoff round, for example, would be a huge place to start for an organization that hasn’t played in the second round since before the salary cap era began (2004), and has built a roster that has championship aspirations right now. This isn’t a team whose window is still a couple of years away from opening. They are in it right now, and with the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins (and maybe Washington Capitals after Wednesday?) out of the picture this season the field is wide open for every team in the Eastern Conference.

But again, let’s just start with a round.

It would be huge for the best collection of young forwards in the NHL that was only strengthened this summer with the addition of John Tavares. At some point Round 1 exits — and a loss on Tuesday would be the third in a row — will not be enough for this core.

It would be huge for the highest paid head coach in the NHL whose actual results-based resume has not matched his reputation and league-wide standing in quite a while. At some point third place finishes (a Babcock coached team has not finished higher than third in its division since 2010-11) and Round 1 exits (he has not been out of Round 1 since 2012-13, and only once since 2010-11) will not be enough. I again go back to the fact that 25 different NHL head coaches have won a playoff series since Babcock last won one. If you’re the Maple Leafs, you’re not paying more than $6 million per season for those results.

It would be huge for Nazem Kadri, an incredibly valuable player, who once again failed his team by doing something completely reckless and senseless to take himself out of a playoff series. It would be an awfully bad look to have your team go out early, again, while you’re sitting in the press box for a significant chunk of the series for a totally avoidable reason. This will be the 14th playoff game between the Bruins and Maple Leafs the past two years, and Kadri has made himself available for only six of them. Would you be able to bring him back after that?

It is a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the pressure is on everyone to win.

If Boston loses it would no doubt be disappointing for the organization and the fans. But this Bruins’ core at least has a championship to fall back on, and has at least made some kind of a run at some point in the past decade. It would be frustrating, but it wouldn’t be something that would make the organization take a long look at itself in the mirror and try to figure out why this sort of thing keeps happening.

But Toronto? A loss on Tuesday night would sink them into a sea of questions regarding their core, their coach, and just why in the hell they can’t get through this Boston Bruins team.

That will not be fun — or good — for anyone.

Anything can happen in a Game 7, but Toronto needs this one more than any other team playing in a Game 7 in this round.

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.

AP/CP survey: Players pan delay of game, goalie interference

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The pace and excitement of 3-on-3 overtime isn’t just a thrill for hockey fans – NHL players love it, too.

An Associated Press/Canadian Press survey of NHLPA representatives from all 31 teams found that 97% of those polled enjoy the league’s current overtime format during the regular season. The survey also found there are other rules the players are less thrilled with, ranging from delay-of-game penalties to confusion about goalie interference.

For Arizona Coyotes defenseman Kevin Connauton, the worst rule in hockey is resolving a game with a shootout when overtime fails to produce a winner.

”I don’t really like the shootout,” he said. ”I think you just play 3-on-3 and eventually someone will score.”

The survey found that 30 players like the 3-on-3 setup. Only Philadelphia defenseman Radko Gudas said he did not, preferring the previous 4-on-4 setup better. He and said having fewer players on the ice is too much like ”summertime hockey.”

”You work your bag off 60 minutes 5-on-5 and then all of a sudden it’s 3-on-3, a speedier, faster guy pretty much wins,” he said. ”I think 4-on-4 would be more hockey-like situations than 3-on-3.”

Still, his peers said they love it. Playing a five-minute 3-on-3 period provides a fair way to end the game while allowing fans to see some pure skill, Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares said.

”(It’s) exciting and you see the best players in the world with that type of time and space,” he said. ”It goes to show it’s a good way to end games. There’s no perfect science to this. We want a winner, but we can’t play forever. It’s a great way to showcase the talent, the skill of the game.”

The pace can be tough for the guys on the ice, New Jersey Devils goaltender Cory Schneider said.

”I hate it as a goalie, but I like it as a hockey fan,” he said. ”I think it’s better than the shootout, for sure. And I know it’s not perfect, but it gets you a decision, it gets people excited, you see some amazing skill and the way the league is now, it’s a great showcase for what these guys can do.”

The NHL moved away from 4-on-4 overtime in the 2015-16 regular season in a bid to create more space on the ice, allow for more goals and reduce the number of games going to shootouts. In the postseason, overtime is in 20-minute, sudden-death periods at 5-on-5. There are no shootouts.

Dylan DeMelo of the Ottawa Senators loves 3-on-3, but said there is one tweak he’d like to make. The defenseman said he wants to see a rule that would stop players from taking the puck over center ice and then back again to regroup. He thinks that would make OT even more entertaining.

There are a number of other rules players would love to see changed, including 63.2 that stipulates a delay of game penalty when a puck is shot or batted over the glass.

”I don’t think it should be a penalty. I think it should be the same as an icing. Whistle, faceoff in your end, no ability to change,” said Colorado Avalanche defenseman Ian Cole, one of five players (16%) who said the rule is the worst in hockey. ”A penalty for a play that has a high chance to happen in a course of a game or a (penalty kill) or whatever, it seems a little drastic.”

For other players, the uncertainty around what constitutes goalie interference is particularly irritating. Three players, or 10% of those in the survey, said the inconsistency was their least-favorite part of the NHL rule book.

”What is goaltender interference and what’s not?” said Edmonton defenseman Darnell Nurse. ”Maybe having more of a clear line, but any time you talk about something within the game, things happen so fast out there that judgment calls and whatnot, they’re hard to make.”

According to the league, there are only two situations where goaltender interference should result in a disallowed goal: if an attacking player stops the goalie from being able to move freely within his crease or defend his goal, or an attacking player intentionally or deliberately makes contact with the goalie.

Some players say what counts as interference in one game might not be the same in the next.

On Friday, Flyers goalie Cam Talbot tweeted his dissatisfaction with how the rule was applied in the Maple Leafs’ 2-1 win over the Boston Bruins.

”Once again the NHL goalie interference review is flawed,” wrote Talbot, who was not part of the AP/CP survey. ”Someone that’s played the game in the blue paint should be in the situation room. Games are being lost in the playoffs and it’s not right. (hash)inconsistent.”

Three players said what they most dislike are offside reviews. Nine others named other rules, including tripping being called alongside diving, and the ban on time outs being used when the puck is iced. Eleven players did not provide a specific answer.

”Rules are the rules. I just follow them,” said winger Anders Lee of the New York Islanders.

More AP NHL: http://www.apnews.com/NHL and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports