The National Hockey League’s “Hockey Fights Cancer” initiative took on a little more meaning for Pittsburgh Penguins teammates Olli Maatta and Phil Kessel.
For Maatta and Kessel, it’s personal.
Maatta and Kessel are cancer survivors, and both played an integral role when the Penguins took their turn hosting Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night for their Nov. 7 home game against Arizona. Every NHL team hosted their own awareness night from October through December as part of Hockey Fights Cancer Month.
“I think a big part of it is just raising awareness of what’s going on,” Maatta said. “Obviously, it means a lot. It’s big.”
In 2006, when Kessel was a 19-year-old rookie with the Boston Bruins, he was diagnosed with a form of testicular cancer. He underwent immediate surgery, and follow-up tests confirmed the cancer did not spread and he returned to the ice less than a month later.
Kessel, a native of Madison, Wisconsin, is a former University of Minnesota standout and a product of USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. He was awarded the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy that season — given annually to the player who best exemplifies qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey — after missing 12 games because of his cancer treatment.
Maatta was also 19 in 2014 when he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from his thyroid. The tumor was discovered on Maatta’s neck during preseason physicals, and after undergoing surgery to have it removed, he returned to the lineup several weeks later.
Early detection was the key for Maatta.
“For me, I can’t really compare what other people are going through,” Maatta said. “It was really easy for me and we got it early, so that was good. I can relate to how scary it is to hear about it. It’s not easy because your close family and friends are definitely worried about it too.”
That’s why Maatta and Kessel took the lead as faces for the Penguins’ Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Night. Public service announcements designed to promote awareness were filmed featuring Kessel and Maatta, and were aired inside PPG Paints Arena during the game.
Also, as was done around the league, Penguins players wore commemorative purple jerseys during pre-game warmups against the Coyotes as part of a fundraiser. The jerseys were autographed by players after the game and auctioned online, with proceeds benefitting the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center and the Mario Lemieux Foundation.
Additionally, fans attending the game received a special Hockey Fights Cancer purple knit hat, courtesy of the UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. The Penguins coaching staff, team broadcasters and management wore Hockey Fights Cancer commemorative clothing and accent lighting around the arena was trimmed in purple.
Penguins’ Booster Club members sold Hockey Fights Cancer commemorative mystery pucks, and as part of the NHL’s “I Fight For…” campaign, support cards and signs were also available for fans to personalize and display throughout the game. Players were able to do the same on their purple jerseys, as they featured a special tag where they could write in someone they knew who had been affected by cancer.
Cancer patients from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and Make-A-Wish Foundation were special guests in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin’s charity suites, and special guests riding the zambonis were cancer patients and survivors.
The team also hosted Darran Dunlap, a local 6-year-old girl diagnosed with leukemia one year prior as part the awareness night. She spent the night at the arena, meeting players, team officials and personalities before standing on the ice, with her hand over her heart during the national anthem.
The kids who are fighting and have overcome, including Dunlap, are most inspiring to Maatta.
“Just seeing kids happy is probably the best part about it,” Maatta said. “It’s pretty crazy how mentally strong these kids are, with what they’re going through.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.