Carly Accardo says the biggest fear of a parent who has lost a child is the fear of that child being forgotten.
The Coyotes are doing their best to soothe, just a bit, that fear. Arizona will induct Carly's daughter, Leighton Accardo, into the team's Ring of Honor, Saturday, making a legacy of her memory.
And a lasting one.
Leighton, honorary Coyotes teammate, "Hockey Fights Cancer" ambassador and a skater with the Kachinas Girls' Hockey Association, passed away, at age nine, November 24 from Stage Four cancer. Her life and spirit will be honored prior to the Coyotes 3 p.m. game against St. Louis at Gila River Arena.
She will become the first individual who is not a former player, coach, general manager, or broadcaster, to be inducted into a team's Ring of Honor in the entire NHL.
"Accardo" and Leighton's hockey number, 49, will be etched into the arena's upper ring, just below the press box, joining Wayne Gretzky, Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick, Teppo Numminen, Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, and Bobby Hull.
The entire Accardo family will attend the ceremony, siblings Larson, LeeAnne and Locke, and father, Jeremy, who will take leave from his duties as New York Mets assistant pitching coach.
Carly Accardo wiped away tears Friday afternoon while admitting that the team's gesture will ease some of her fear.
"It's an incredible honor," Carly Accardo said. "It doesn't shock me that the Coyotes went to this length, because it just speaks to how amazing they've been through this entire journey and this entire process. I knew they were going to do something special. We were speechless when we first heard. We're incredibly grateful. It doesn't come as a surprise, because they've been fantastic."
The Coyotes fan base first became widely familiar with Leighton when she was signed to a one-day contract in February 2019 to be the team's ambassador for "Hockey Fights Cancer Night." In addition to serving as pre-game, locker-room speaker, Leighton swapped roles with captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson, taking the ceremonial puck-drop face-off.
Video: Cancer fighter Leighton Accardo drops puck in Arizona
"That Hockey Fights Cancer Day was such a big day for her," Carly Accardo said. "Cancer took so much away from her, all those things she was such a superstar at. It took away her ability to compete on the baseball field and on the ice, it took all of that away. And that day kind of brought back that superstardom for her."
The Coyotes have worn "LA49" decals on their helmets this season and will wear special jerseys during pre-game warm-ups, Saturday, later to be auctioned off to benefit the Leighton Accardo Memorial Scholarship Fund for girls' hockey in Arizona. The jerseys will feature a ribbon and Coyote logo, with Leighton's "Skate Hard, Have Fun" motto; the "LA49" logo patch on the shoulders, and "In Loving Memory" inside the collar. All the nameplates will read "Leighton."
Coyotes President and CEO Xavier Gutierrez said Leighton's name in the Ring of Honor is "incredibly special to this organization.
"She is a part of the Coyotes, and she forever will be," Gutierrez said.
"This is a celebration of life," Gutierrez continued. "This is a celebration of a young girl who touched our organization and will forever be remembered by this organization. I want to thank the entire Accardo family for allowing us this opportunity to honor not just a little girl and her memory, but to honor her spirit, to honor what she stood for, to honor the impact that she made.
"We honor great sports heroes because of what they mean, not just because of what they've accomplished," Gutierrez continued. "Their toughness, their resiliency -- how they brought out the best in not only themselves and their teammates, but in us. That defined Leighton Accardo."
Gutierrez then stressed the power of sports to change lives.
"And that's what Leighton did," he said. "She inspired us. She brought us together. She created hope. She brought joy."
Indeed, the "Ring of Honor' honor was partly fan-driven, with numerous fans calling, on social media, for Leighton's jersey and number to be retired.
Lyndsey Fry is the Coyotes Director of External Engagement, Youth & Women's Hockey, President of the Arizona Kachinas Girls' Hockey Association, and team radio color analyst. She coached Leighton in youth hockey and grew close to the Accardo family during Leighton's ordeal. She catalyzed the "Leighton Accardo Scholarship Fund" with the "Skatin' For Leighton," 96-mile roller-blade trek in February that hit every ice rink in the Greater Valley. More than $75,000 has been raised to date;" the Coyotes will announce a significant increase to that total Saturday.
"To have something physical with Leighton's name represented up there with so many other amazing names, something that's never going away," Fry said. "I think that's really comforting for the family. It's comforting for everyone who knew her, to know that when people are going to look up, they're going to see 'Accardo.' And even though they maybe didn't know this little girl, they'll know that she was important and she mattered."
Fry continued: "It is a big honor. She's up there with (Wayne) Gretzky's (number) for cryin' out loud. It's a huge honor. It's really incredible to know that in 20 years, when a little kid comes into the arena and looks up -- and who knows, maybe they're a beneficiary of the Leighton Accardo Memorial Scholarship Fund in 20 years -- and they might say, 'That's the person who helped make it all happen.' I just think that's amazing."
Head coach Rick Tocchet said, "Leighton would come in here, and you never knew she was sick. She'd always have a smile. I remember one time she was gone for two weeks -- and some of those treatments are painful -- and she came back in with that smile. It gave the players a different perspective -- and not just the players, but everyone in general."
As for the ceremony itself, Saturday, Lyndsey Fry said: "It's going to be heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time, the entire night. I think the nice thing though is that this isn't a memorial game, it's a legacy game, because that's what Leighton left behind."
Leighton's mother is unsure of exactly how she will react to the moment.
"I've tried to (envision it)," Carly Accardo said. "I don't know if I'll have any words."
Lead Photo Credit: Kelsey Grant - Arizona Coyotes // Second Photo Credit: Kevin Anggara - Arizona Coyotes // Third Photo Credit: Kelsey Grant - Arizona Coyotes // Fourth Photo Credit: Kevin Anggara - Arizona Coyotes // Footer Photo Credit: Arizona Coyotes Production