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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.

Stanley Cup Final 2019 schedule, TV info

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We know the Boston Bruins are going to be hosting Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, and now we know when that game will take place.

We just need to wait and find out which team will be facing them.

The NHL announced the schedule for the 2019 Stanley Cup Final on Friday night and the series will begin on Monday, May 27, in Boston, where the Bruins will play the winner of the Western Conference Final between the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks.

If there is a Game 7 necessary, it will take place on Wednesday, June 12, in Boston at 8 p.m. ET.

The Bruins are playing in their first Stanley Cup Final since 2013 and are trying to win it for the first time since 2011.

The Sharks and Blues are hoping to win for the first time ever.

The Sharks most recently reached the Stanley Cup Final during the 2015-16 season (where they lost in six games to the the Pittsburgh Penguins), while the Blues have not reached it since the 1970 season.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire series (All times ET, subject to change).

Game 1: Monday, May 27, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
Game 2: Wednesday, May 29, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBCSN
Game 3: Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBCSN
Game 4: Monday, June 3, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 5: Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*Game 6: Sunday, June 9, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, June 12, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC

*If necessary

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: Sharks host Blues in Game 5 of Western Conference Final

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Game 5: St. Louis Blues at San Jose Sharks, 3 p.m. ET (Series tied 2-2)
NBC
Call: Kenny Albert, Mike Milbury, Pierre McGuire
Series preview

Stream here

Liam McHugh anchors Sunday’s studio coverage on NBC alongside Patrick Sharp and Keith Jones.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Here is the complete schedule for the entire 2019 Stanley Cup Final series:

Game 1: Monday, May 27, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
Game 2: Wednesday, May 29, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBCSN
Game 3: Saturday, June 1, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBCSN
Game 4: Monday, June 3, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 5: Thursday, June 6, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*Game 6: Sunday, June 9, 8 p.m.: Bruins at San Jose/St. Louis | NBC
*Game 7: Wednesday, June 12, 8 p.m.: San Jose/St. Louis at Bruins | NBC
*If necessary
(All times ET, subject to change)

Sharks’ Karlsson set to play in Game 5 vs. Blues

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The San Jose Sharks will have one of their best defensemen in the lineup when they host the St. Louis Blues in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

Erik Karlsson is set to battle through whatever is ailing his groin, a nagging injury that appeared to aggravated in a 2-1 loss against the Blues in Game 4 on Friday.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

Karlsson grimaced on the Sharks bench, where he sat from the 10:36 mark to 18:05 of the third period. Karlsson was able to play out the final 1:55 of the game as the Sharks went hunting for an equalizer.

How effective Karlsson will be is up in the air. NBC Sports analysts Jeremy Roenick and Patrick Sharp broke down some tape of Karlsson, who was certainly hobbled by the injury.

Karlsson finished Game 4 having played 24:33. He has two goals and 16 points in these playoffs and scored the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 3.

At the very least, Karlsson’s presence will help Brent Burns, who is already playing nearly 29 minutes a game and probably doesn’t need more added to his plate.

[More: The Wraparound: Sharks step up to the plate in back-and-forth series]


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

U.S. tops Germans 3-1 for 5th win in row at world championship

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KOSICE, Slovakia (AP) — Dylan Larkin scored a tiebreaking goal midway through the third period and the United States went on to beat Germany 3-1 Sunday at the world championships.

Jack Eichel put the Americans ahead by two goals late in the third and Cory Schneider was strong in net, helping them win a fifth straight game in Group A since opening the tournament with a 4-1 loss to the host Slovaks.

Frederik Tiffels put the Germans ahead 1-0 midway through the first period and James van Riemsdyk pulled the Americans into a tie less than two minutes later.

The U.S. closes the preliminary round Tuesday against rival Canada.

Michael Frolik scored to help the Czech Republic beat winless Austria 8-0 in Bratislava in Group B.

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

The Wraparound: Sharks step up to the plate in back-and-forth series

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The Wraparound is your daily look at the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. We’ll break down each day’s matchups with the all-important television and live streaming information included.

In a series where a loss has been met by a response from the team that most recently fell, it’s the San Jose Sharks turn to answer the bell.

The Sharks had their chance to put the St. Louis Blues on the ropes in Game 4 of the Western Conference Final, but as has been the case throughout this series, winning two straight hasn’t come easy and the Blues prevailed to make this series a best-of-three.

Game 5 goes Sunday afternoon (3 p.m. ET; NBC; live stream).

“Maybe the best I’ve felt about our game in the series so far, even though we lost. We put two goals in our own net off our own guys. Didn’t get the start we wanted, got on our heels the first shift, took a couple penalties … then not finding a way to get a couple more goals. I thought we did a lot of good stuff.”

The Sharks managed 73 shot attempts in the game, more than doubling the Blues output in that regard.

San Jose’s issue? Jordan Binnington. The rookie netminder stopped 29 en route to his 10th playoff win. And men flailing themselves in front of oncoming rubber: the Blues blocked 21 shots in the game. And then misfiring, given the number of shot attempts that never turned into bona fide shots: 22.

“We were trying to keep them to the outside as much as they can,” Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “We don’t want those guys up top shooting too. We were trying to limit the rebounds and second opportunities. I thought we did a good job of pushing their guys out.”

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

The Sharks are 0-6 in this postseason when leading a series, a number that hardly screams, “clutch.” What they are good at is finding wins when series are tied. They’re 10-2 when trailing or tied in a series, including winning two Game 7s along their journey to the penultimate round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

San Jose lost for the first time when allowed two goals or fewer in a game. Not in the playoffs, but all season. They entered Game 4 with a 39-0-0 record and left with their first blemish.

The Sharks, then, need to find some killer instinct if they’re going to advance to the Final. Martin Jones has given them a chance between the pipes, but he needs a few to start reciprocating.

Tomas Hertl, for instance, doesn’t have a point 5-on-5 in this series. Ditto for Joe Pavelski and likewise for Evander Kane. Kane doesn’t have a goal in his past nine games.

Those 73 shot attempts are encouraging, but they’re meaningless if you manage just a single goal. In wins, the Sharks have managed to score 11 goals in this series across both games. In losses? Just three.

The Blues have embraced the grind from the beginning. The Sharks need to figure out how to match it.

And they may have to go at it without defenseman Erik Karlsson.

Winners of Game 5 when a series is deadlocked 2-2 go on to win 70.3 percent of the time.

There’s no shortage of motivation for either team today.

MORE:
• Conference Finals schedule, TV info
PHT Conference Finals predictions


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck