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Fans help Del Zotto reunite with young friend

Friday, 03.07.2014 / 8:22 PM / NHL Insider

By James Murphy - NHL.com Correspondent

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Fans help Del Zotto reunite with young friend
Michael Del Zotto, with fundraising help from fans, reunited with young friend Liam Traynor this weekend at Nashville Predators games.

Sometimes it's easy to forget how a trade often uproots a player from his family and the friends he has made in the city he has called home for an extended period of time.

That was the case Jan. 22 when the New York Rangers traded 23-year old defenseman Michael Del Zotto to the Nashville Predators for defenseman Kevin Klein. Single, Del Zotto didn't have to move his family, but he was going to have to leave behind someone who in his four years in New York had become not only his biggest fan but one of his best friends.

A diehard fan from Rockland County, N.Y., 12-year old Liam Traynor lives with cerebral palsy and met Del Zotto through the Garden Of Dreams Foundation in January 2010.

The two have been close friends since.

They have been in touch almost every day via phone and text, and Del Zotto has made the occasional surprise visit to Traynor's home. The defenseman would often meet Liam to play Xbox and talk hockey. Before every game, Del Zotto checks his phone for his game-day text from Liam, which provides scouting reports on opposing teams and players. Their relationship was documented on the HBO program "24/7 Flyers/Rangers: Road to the NHL Winter Classic."

With Del Zotto getting traded to Nashville, the personal visits stopped and their friendship would be limited to texting and phone calls.

Michael Del Zotto
Defense - NSH
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 13
SOG: 76 | +/-: -6
"He wasn't too happy that's for sure," Del Zotto said. "But I tried to explain to him it is part of the business and stuff like this happens. So he understands better now. I also told him that no matter where I am, we'll always be best buddies. So that eased the moment, I think, but it's safe to say he wasn't too pleased."

The bond they have formed is so strong that when Rangers fans found out Del Zotto was traded they flooded Liam's Twitter account, saying they were thinking of him and encouraging him to "hang in there."

One Rangers fan took his compassion a step further and launched a website called "Get Liam To Nashville" (http://liam.myevent.com/) in an effort to reunite him and Del Zotto at a Predators game; the Rangers don't play the Predators in New York again this season.

The goal was to have Traynor and his mom, Deborah, travel to Nashville to see Del Zotto and watch the Predators play the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday. In one month, the fundraising website raised enough money to cover ticket costs, round-trip airfare, hotel reservations and full-size SUV rental for Traynor and his family. As if that wasn't enough, the Predators stepped in and made sure the family had tickets for the Predators' 2-1 loss Thursday to the St. Louis Blues, reuniting Traynor and Del Zotto afterward in the dressing room.

"I was pretty excited. He texted me the night before saying he was coming and I couldn't wait to see him," Del Zotto told the media Friday. "It was pretty tough loss [Thursday] and having him there really cheered me up. [He's] an amazing person and an amazing family. I'm so happy that they're here.

"I think it's great for him too. He's gone through so much, and even lately he had his grandfather pass away and they had to put their family dog down. So it's even more on his plate that he had to deal with. So being able to come here and see me has helped out a little bit, and it's done the same for me. So I just want to thank everyone who put their money forward to help him come here because it means a lot to me."

(Click for full-size image)

The Traynors have been taken aback by the generosity of the Rangers community.

"When we found out that they had put up this website to get Liam to Nashville and see Michael again, we were just totally taken aback that they would do this," Deborah Traynor said. "It just shows you how great this hockey community and the Rangers fan base is. We told Liam, 'You'll always be a Ranger fan, and no matter what, you and Michael will always be friends.' That they supported him this way was so touching and great."

Liam has a new affinity for Predators fans, particularly a couple he and his family met Thursday that gave him a $100 gift card to the souvenir shop.

"The Nashville fans welcomed me with open arms," he said in an email to NHL.com. "To be able to come here and see Michael play in his new arena was awesome! DZ is my best buddy. I'm lucky he treats me so well!"

According to Del Zotto, the feeling is mutual. Liam's perseverance through numerous surgeries and living with cerebral palsy has been an inspiration and a reminder of just how lucky he is to be a pro athlete, especially during some trying times this season.

"I've known Liam since my first year in New York and we pretty much talk or text every day," Del Zotto said. "He always talks to his family and friends about how great I've been to him and helping him through tough times, but I think he's just as much an inspiration for me. This year was a bit of a struggle at the start of the year. So sometimes you want to get down on yourself or feel sorry for yourself and then you look at how fortunate we are. So talking to him and feeling his support, this really is a two-way friendship. I'm lucky to have him in my life."

Traynor and Del Zotto will again get to talk hockey in person Saturday when the Predators host the Blue Jackets. But the texting and their friendship will endure long past this memorable weekend.

"Having him here as my biggest fan and as my best buddy means so much to me," Del Zotto said. "It's great that we will always have that bond."

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