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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)

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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.

Ron Francis speaks about handling of Peters situation while Hurricanes GM

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NHL Seattle general manager Ron Francis has responded to how physical abuse accusations against former Carolina Hurricanes head coach Bill Peters were handled when he was the team’s GM.

Speaking with The Seattle Times this week, Francis said he addressed the issue with Peters and defended giving him a two-year extension after the fact.

“We looked where the team was and how it was playing,” Francis said. “It was moving in the right direction. We’d made a huge increase from where it was the year before to where we were that year. And quite honestly, we looked at that (physical-abuse) situation, we addressed it and we felt it was behind him.”

“I think you deal with it the best you can with the situation you have at the time,” Francis said. “I think within the last week there have been some changes the league has made. I think that’s positive moving forward. I don’t claim to be perfect. I make mistakes. I try to learn every day from the people I talk with in situations. That’s what I try to do and take that knowledge moving forward. And hopefully you’re never in that situation again.”

Last month, after Peters was accused to uttering racial slurs at Akim Aliu, whom he coached in the American Hockey League, former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan said that Peters kicked him in the back and punched another player during a game. The allegations for were confirmed by current head coach Rod Brind’Amour, who was an assistant under Peters.

Former Hurricanes majority owner Peter Karmanos told The Seattle Times that he would have fired Francis “in a nanosecond” had he been made aware of the allegations against Peters, even though Francis, who added there was a full vetting process during the hiring process, said he informed management of the situation.

Peters resigned as Calgary Flames head coach days after the allegations went public. In a statement that week Francis acknowledged he was made aware of the incidents and that he “took immediate action to address the matter and briefed ownership.” He did not reveal what he did to correct the matter in either his statement or in the interview with the Times’ Geoff Baker.

“When you look back, there were some things we did well and certain things we need to improve on to get better,” he said. “That’s part of the learning process, I think.”

The NHL revealed a four-point plan this week at the Board of Governors that will provide a guideline for teams in handling abuse allegations and other inappropriate conduct.

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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.

Wild’s Spurgeon 10 seasons into size-defying career

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The defining moment of Jared Spurgeon‘s hockey career came when he was just 13: His peewee coach in Edmonton moved him from forward to defenseman.

There was no going back for Spurgeon, even though he hasn’t grown much bigger since then. Minnesota’s 5-foot-9, 167-pound stalwart on the blue line has been defying size stereotypes ever since.

”I just fell in love with the position,” Spurgeon said.

The Wild have felt the same way about him over the last 10 seasons. The 30-year-old Spurgeon, who set career highs in games (82), goals (14), assists (29), shots (152) and hits (91) during the 2019-19 season, signed a seven-year, $53 million contract extension at the beginning of training camp.

Not bad for a sixth-round pick the New York Islanders ultimately declined to sign, paving the way for a tryout with the Wild two years after he was drafted.

”Probably the best in the NHL at breaking the puck out. Unbelievable on his edges. One of the smartest players in the game,” said Buffalo defenseman Marco Scandella, who played with Spurgeon in Minnesota for seven seasons. ”He’s got a lot of things in his toolbox, and he doesn’t even need the size.”

Spurgeon, who is halfway through an expected two-week absence for a hand injury sustained while blocking a shot, has ranked over the last four years in the top 20 among NHL defensemen in goals, power play goals, blocked shots and time on ice.

”That’s one of those players that you’re just like, ‘How?’ ” Scandella said. ”You just have to watch him over a season. Play with him, and you understand how good he is.”

The ability to skate – and pass – quickly will always be critical for a player with Spurgeon’s frame. Part of that is being fast enough to elude opponents, but it also means maximizing his power by maintaining leverage and balance for the moments when he does initiate or absorb contact.

”You don’t need to be huge and massive to be strong on your skates,” said St. Louis center Ryan O'Reilly, who faces Spurgeon frequently as a Central Division rival. ”You go in and forecheck, and he is so strong. It’s like going against a big guy.”

Awareness is just as important as fearlessness to succeed as a 5-foot-9 player, of course.

Spurgeon simply doesn’t get pushed around much because he’s rarely caught off guard by a big hit. The advantage of vision from the blue line, being able to see the plays develop in front of him, was one of the benefits that immediately drew Spurgeon to defense. He tried to emulate players who came before him like Brian Rafalski and Dan Boyle, sub-6-foot defensemen who were offensive threats but never a liability in their own zone.

”The emphasis of moving the puck and getting up ice and being able to contribute offensively as well is a whole lot different than it used to be, where maybe you had one of those guys before and a bunch of a big, mean guys,” Spurgeon said. ”But I think now the game is so fast that I think it gives the ability for smaller guys to play.”

According to Sportradar data, there are 41 defensemen who have appeared in at least one NHL game this season and are listed at 5-foot-11 or shorter. That number drops to 18 at 5-foot-10 or less and to six at 5-foot-9 and under.

In the 2005-06 season after the lockout, which brought rule changes to encourage more free-flowing action in the neutral zone and increase goal scoring, there were only 29 defensemen at 5-foot-11 or shorter, 11 at 5-foot-10 or less, and three at 5-foot-9 and under. Twenty years ago, there were fewer still: 22 players at 5-foot-11 or shorter, eight at 5-foot-10 or less, and just one at 5-foot-9 and under.

The Wild have two 5-foot-9 blue-liners with Spurgeon and Brad Hunt. Boston’s Torey Krug is another standout in the club. Those lanky veterans around the league like St. Louis’ Colton Parayko (6-foot-6), Carolina’s Dougie Hamilton (6-foot-6) and Boston’s Zdeno Chara (6-foot-9) have obvious advantages with reach and strength, but there’s plenty more to sound defense than being able to poke a stick at a puck.

”We have the quickness and the first two or three strides in order to close plays so that they don’t get the possession of the puck and move on. I think it’s just using our skating abilities,” Krug said. ”I think it’s been a long time coming, especially with the real changes in the way the game is trending. It’s funny, years ago to have one of those guys on your team, people kind of scoffed at that. Now we’ve got two and sometimes three in the lineup at once, and it creates really mobile back end.”

STREAKING

Pittsburgh goalie Tristan Jarry had a franchise-record scoreless run of 177:15 that ended during a 4-1 loss to Montreal on Tuesday, just the second defeat in eight starts for the backup to Matt Murray. Jarry stopped 82 consecutive shots during the streak, the longest in the league this season.

SLUMPING

The Detroit Red Wings are sliding toward a four-year absence from the playoffs after the end of their famous 25-season streak of making it. The Red Wings are on a 12-game winless streak, going 0-10-2 since Nov. 12, and have the worst record in the NHL at 7-22-3. They’ve dropped 10 straight games in regulation by a 47-16 margin.

Our Line Starts podcast: Montgomery’s firing; drafting the All-Decade Team

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Kathryn Tappen, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp discuss the surprise firing of Stars coach Jim Montgomery. The guys also give their takes on Gary Bettman’s four-point plan to handle abuse. Pierre McGuire sits down with Sabres coach Ralph Krueger to talk about his time in Europe and his path from the Premier League back to the NHL. Plus, Jones and Sharp reveal their top defensemen and goalies of the decade. Do you agree with them?

Start-0:45 Intros
0:45-7:25 Reaction to Dallas firing Jim Montgomery
7:25-14:10 Gary Bettman and the NHL’s 4-point plan
14:10-32:50 Pierre interviews Sabres coach Ralph Krueger
36:05-End The guys begin to draft their All-Decade Team

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

PHT Morning Skate: Bruins’ stars workload; Shero’s hot seat

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• “Akim Aliu’s story of enduring racism inside hockey includes an incident in which a minor-league team staffer dressed up as him in blackface.” [Wall Street Journal]

• “It feels like this examination and accounting of hockey’s ugly underbelly is in its infancy, as if a light has shined on the game’s conscience for the first time in decades, with the holder of the flashlight realizing just how much cleansing there is to do.” [TSN]

• The Bruins stars are carrying a heavy offensive load. [RotoWorld]

• What players need to avoid the regression monster and which ones are ready to bounce back? [ESPN]

• The name, colors and logo of Seattle’s NHL expansion team could be revealed in February or March. [NHL.com]

• How hot is Ray Shero’s seat now becoming in New Jersey? [All About the Jersey]

• Well-travelled Eric Comrie looking to make mark with Red Wings. [Sun Media]

• Speaking of hot seats, how much longer does Jeff Blashill have in Detroit? [Freep]

• Ranking the all-time jersey designs of the Vancouver Canucks. [Hockey by Design]

• Could the Canadians be potential trade partners with the Blackhawks? [NBC Sports Chicago]

• A look at the best player at every age in the NHL. [Yardbarker]

• Finally, here’s Brett Ritchie with the quote of the season:

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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.