Leighton Accardo was the Coyotes' first star on Saturday.
A defenseman for the 8U Arizona Hockey Union Knights, Leighton was signed to a one-day contract by President of Hockey Operations and General Manager John Chayka ahead of the Coyotes' annual Hockey Fights Cancer game against the Calgary Flames.
She is fighting stage IV cancer; doctors discovered germ cell tumors last year. It is a cancer that, based off of previous cases, reacts very well to chemotherapy, which Leighton continues to undergo as she carries on through her treatments with unrelenting strength.
Leighton's parents, Carly and Jeremy, joined their daughter on Saturday at Gila River Arena.
"Since Leighton's diagnoses, the Coyotes have always had someone visiting her; Matt Shott, Lyndsey Fry, or someone visiting her every single stay," her mother, Carly, said. "They've brought her jerseys, they've brought her blankets, they've brought her sticks, they've always made sure to keep in touch and see where Leighton is in her progress and how she's doing, they check in weekly, the club's been great with Leighton since everything started."
Video: CGY@ARI: Coyotes welcome Leighton Accardo
She gave the team a pre-game pep talk, reminding them to "work hard and have fun" before joining the team on the ice for warm-ups, where she helped Vinnie Hinostroza get loose.
Fully equipped from head-to-toe, Leighton skated and stood with the Coyotes' starting lineup for pregame introductions.
Skating is just one of the many obstacles Leighton has overcome to persevere through her treatments. The tumor in Leighton's abdomen invaded her left sciatic nerve, and that essentially paralyzed her lower left leg, making it virtually impossible to get her left foot into a skate.
Stan Wilson, the Coyotes' head equipment manager, worked with Leighton and her family to customize a Bauer skate to ensure Leighton could continue to play.
"Stan made it so the laces on the skate were taken out and the boot was all the way open and added velcro straps that went high enough on Leighton's ankle," her mother said. It gave her more support and stability so that she wasn't hurting, and so her ankle wasn't caving in."
Following introductions, Leighton skated out to center ice to drop the ceremonial puck. Coyotes captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, however, called an audible, handing her his stick and dropping the puck himself as she took the opening faceoff against Flames captain Mark Giordano.
When asked what her favorite part about hockey was prior to the game, she repeatedly said "having fun" with a wide smile.
Then, she added the most important detail of all: "Even if you lose, you still have fun."
The Coyotes were able to bring home a win on Saturday, and plenty of fun was had when she received the game pelt in the locker room afterward, awarded to the team's player of the game.
"Our hero today," said Ekman-Larsson "She's been through a lot, it's nice to see her smile and skate around happy, that means a lot to us."
"For me to skate around with her out there and get a chance to see that smile up close, it's hard to describe how it feels," he added. "It was a pretty cool feeling for me too."
In the end, it's about joining the fight, supporting the fight, and helping those near and dear in their journey to spread awareness.
"She loves doing what she can for Phoenix Children's and doing what she can to spread awareness for childhood cancer, so this is a fun day for her to get to talk about it," her mother, Carly, said.
"It lets people recognize that even though she's going through this stuff, she's still a normal kid, and that's important for her and for people to see."
Lead Photo Credit: Norm Hall - Getty Images // Footer Photo Credit: Norm Hall - Getty Images