How one fan helped save life of Vancouver Canucks’ staffer

canucks Popovici
Christopher Mast/NHLI via Getty Images

Nadia Popovici was seated behind the Vancouver Canucks’ bench inside Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena when she spotted something concerning. What she saw wasn’t happening on the ice, but her medical background prompted her to attempt to pass along an important message.

She took her out her phone, typed a message, and knocked on the glass, trying to get the attention of Canucks’ assistant equipment manager Brian “Red” Hamilton. When he turned around, Popovici displayed the message. What he saw wasn’t your typical fan request for a puck or player’s stick. It was much more serious.

“The mole on the back of your neck is possibly cancerous. Please go see a doctor!,” read Popovici’s phone. Hamilton acknowledged the message and later had team doctors examine what the University of Washington graduate, and soon-to-be medical student, had noticed. They didn’t like the look of what they saw either, and it was removed for a biopsy. 

The diagnosis? A malignant melanoma, a type of skin cancer that “develops in the cells (melanocytes) that produce melanin — the pigment that gives your skin its color,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

“I didn’t know it was there, she pointed it out — how she saw it boggles my mind,” said Hamilton during a Saturday Zoom call with reporters. “It wasn’t very big, I wear a jacket, I wear a radio on the back of my jacket so hooks and chords are there — like, she’s a hero.”

This was a fortunate catch for Hamilton, who said doctors told him that, if ignored over time, it could have been life-threatening.

“It was only on the outer layer of my skin,” he said. “It hadn’t penetrated to the second layer of my skin and that’s because we caught it so early.”

Search begins upon return to Seattle

This happened back on Oct. 23, the night of the Seattle Kraken’s home opener. On Saturday, with the Canucks back in Seattle, the team Tweeted out a letter from Hamilton looking to track down the fan who helped save his life.

“I am trying to find a very special person and I need the hockey community’s help. To this woman I am trying to find, you changed my life, and now I want to find you to say THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH!”

“The message you showed me on your cell phone will forever be etched into my brain and has made a true life-changing difference for me and my family. Your instincts were right and that mole on the back of my neck was a malignant melanoma and thanks to your persistence and the quick work of our doctors, it is now gone.”

Less than two hours later, Popovici was found thanks to the Ladies of the Kraken Facebook message group. An hour and a half before the Kraken hosted the Canucks, Hamilton and Popovici met for the first time.

“The fact that I got to look him in the eye and hear what happened from his perspective,” said Popovici via the Associated Press. “Imagine how jarring that is to for you to be at work and someone just kind of looks at you and says, ‘Hey, maybe you go see a doctor.’ That’s not what you want to hear. So the fact that I got to see him and talk to his family members that have been really impacted by him dodging a big bullet that’s so special.”

A show of appreciation

Poppvici was in her family’s seats for Saturday’s game, not far from Hamilton’s spot on the Vancouver bench. During a first-period stoppage, the Kraken honored Popovici and surprised her with a $10,000 scholarship for medical school on behalf of both teams.

A potentially life-threatening situation ended with an emotional meeting. It was was the perfect conclusion to this story.

In seeking to find out the fan’s identity, Hamilton said his only goal was to ensure Popovici got the the recognition she deserved.

“The world needs to know this woman exists. She’s a hero,” Hamilton said. “We need to celebrate her and people like her that take the time to do things like this and save lives.”

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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.

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