For what the Kings showed last spring in the battle for their second Stanley Cup – camaraderie, resolve and teamwork – those who work tirelessly behind the scenes for the Kings are showing the same attributes in an entirely different kind of fight.
October is Hockey Fights Cancer Awareness Month across the National Hockey League, and it’s a fight that hits home for the Kings, as it does for every team in every sport. And while the intangibles above can be applied to those in both the on and off-ice efforts of the Kings, this is a very real, very concrete fight.
Those amongst the 18,230 fans who pack STAPLES Center for Kings home games, however, may not be as familiar with Danny Zollars, Vice President, Game Presentation and Events, or Jeff Moeller, Senior Director, Communications and Content, as they are with, say, Justin Williams, right wing.
Zollars, who designs and implements the team’s in and out-of-arena entertainment – he and his staff were responsible for stitching together highlights and incorporating The Black Parade and Dream On into the team’s pre-game playoff hype videos, amongst other team events, including parades – is now planning the details for the Hockey Fights Cancer game on October 23 against the Buffalo Sabres.
He is doing this as he wages his own personal fight. On June 6, 2013, Zollars was diagnosed with colorectal cancer two and a half hours before he worked Game 4 of that spring’s Kings-Blackhawks series.
“What am I going to do?” he asked, “Sit around and pout at my house and feel sorry for myself, or just go to work and be normal and be active and do as much as I could?”
That’s exactly what he did. Though he didn’t share his diagnosis with his peers at the game that night, he has poignantly articulated his journey over the last 16 months with candor and a sharp sense of humor on his Tumblr page, Rectal Talk.
Under any different circumstances, the name of such a blog – and the scatological jokes that naturally come when revealing the details of daily life with colorectal cancer – would be met with an objecting eyebrow raise.
But Zollars has met his challenge head on with sincerity and a straightforwardness in his blog that hasn’t vacillated despite some obviously trying times. There have been many days in which he would work from nine-to-one at the Kings’ offices in El Segundo before heading to Santa Monica for radiation treatments in the afternoon, and, ultimately, chemotherapy. There have been periods of time in which work simply wasn’t possible, though he was more than capable of contributing far and beyond of what would have been expected out of anyone in his situation.
“My perspective has changed completely from what I’ve gone through, and kind of realizing what’s important and what’s not, and I just feel if I can push myself, I push myself.”
The cancer spread to Zollars’ liver (very concerning) and lungs, where he has undergone additional surgery and procedures, including cryoablation, the pumping of a freezing argon gas into his lungs to help destroy the affected tissue. The surgery was successful, Zollars is working again and feels “really good now.” His next scan will take place on Friday, a day in which he’ll be preparing for a pair of Sunday games: the ceremony honoring Landon Donovan in his final regular season game with the LA Galaxy, and the Kings’ home game against Minnesota.
“I think the strength and the beauty of Danny is, what makes him so strong, is he’s just moving on. He’s fighting his own battle,” said Kings President, Business Operations Luc Robitaille. “For us, it’s still Danny the guy who works every day and is just at work. And we understand that he’s going through a battle and we want to support him. But I think what makes – I call it a family – this family special is we’re not treating him any different. It’s like we’re not giving him less work or whatever because of what he has. Instead, he’s just being treated the way he is and I think that’s what he wants. He wants to be treated that way.”
When the Kings won the Stanley Cup on home ice on June 13, Robitaille passed the Cup to Zollars, who proudly raised it above his head.
“For us to give him that Cup, he’s earned it just as much as anyone just because of his work ethic and the way he is every day whether or not he’s sick,” Robitaille said.
Jeff Moeller is in his 20th season with the Kings and works as a club spokesman while interacting with the media daily and helping spearhead the club’s communication, broadcast and content departments. Diagnosed last November with skin cancer, Moeller was faced with several challenges, including who to tell and how.
“I initially dismissed it as ‘just skin cancer’ but now I regret that. I did not know then – and I still don’t know – the beginning, middle and end to this story. Regardless I didn’t want to be looked at differently. I didn’t want to be a story.”
Test results from a red spot on his left torso proved to be melanoma, the most dangerous type of that particular cancer, and Moeller’s world was suddenly flipped on its ear. A slew of doctor’s appointments and tests were made. New medical jargon was coming at him and his wife quicker than Jeff Carter blazing down the right wing.
Surgery at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center was scheduled. This particular type of cancer does not respond to chemo or radiation, but Moeller felt more at ease as he had a 93 percent chance to come out of the procedure with a clean bill of health.
Bad news followed. After the surgery was completed and the physical healing was well underway, it was determined he fell into that seven percent category. A more invasive surgery was needed with all the lymph nodes in that region needing to be removed.
“That news hit hard,” said Moeller, a married father of two.
An avid baseball fan, Moeller used the outdoor game at Dodger Stadium in late January as further motivation to get back to full-time work, to get back to normal. What he has learned, however, is living as a cancer survivor is his new normal.
Having passed every scan since the second surgery, there remains a 40 percent chance the cancer returns. He thinks about it a lot, he said, and is currently on an 18-month program in which he gives himself a shot weekly thus increasing the chance cancer does not return.
The medicine – interferon – gives him flu-like symptoms for the following two days, but he knows it is a small price to pay.
“I feel extremely fortunate, extremely blessed,” Moeller said. “It has been an incredible yet humbling experience. I am very thankful for the support of my wife, my family, friends and my co-workers and the medical professionals I have encountered. Danny has been very inspirational too.
“I was healthy and suddenly sitting I am in an oncology waiting room. You ask yourself a lot of questions but it is a helpless feeling,” Moeller said.
Moeller, coincidentally, also has a meeting with one of his doctors on Friday at UCLA. He and Zollars often joke they should carpool or split the parking costs in Westwood. They also seem to know the UCLA cafeteria menu by heart.
The experience on the whole though is difficult to easily sum up. It has been a series of highs and lows.
“I will not let it define me,” Moeller said, “but cancer – and those side effects – suck.”
Unlike Zollars Moeller does not have responsibilities with the Galaxy but, ironically, the recent news in which Donovan, the famous soccer player, admits to suffering from depression inspired him.
“There is the physical side but there is also the mental side, which can be even more challenging. In short, don’t be afraid to get something looked at and don’t be afraid to ask questions,” he added.
That message will be part of the push behind the team’s outreach this month as part of Hockey Fights Cancer. The goal is to raise and donate more than $100,000 from mid-October through mid-November in support of the league-wide initiative.
All of AEG and AEG-based foundations will unite together in the endeavor, with t-shifts emblazoned with #kingsFcancer sold at upcoming home games with all proceeds benefitting cancer-associated charities. The Team LA Store will offer fans a gift available with purchases whose proceeds will benefit Hockey Fights Cancer-associated charities, and a memorial/survivor wall will go up at STAPLES Center later this month. Sports Chalet – which has donated a $5,000 check to the Kings Care Foundation – will offer Hockey Fights Cancer merchandise in their stores throughout the Los Angeles area and will donate 10 percent of the proceeds to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
The efforts will peak on Hockey Fights Cancer night on October 23, when the Kings will wear lavender-hued warm-up jerseys that will be signed and auctioned off, with all proceeds benefiting cancer-related charitable organizations.
The Kings have offered assistance to those in need around Los Angeles and will unconditionally do the same when health complications affect a member of their tight-knit group. When Jennifer Pope, the Senior Director of Community Relations and the Kings Care Foundation, and her husband Matt learned that their son Charlie was diagnosed with Hydrocephalus, the team became a champion of Hydrocephalus Association and sponsored fundraisers and 5Ks in an effort to build support and raise funds.
When Zollars, or Moeller, or others in the organization whose lives have been affected by cancer are in need, there is the natural and immediate response by those surrounding them to support them unconditionally.
Cancer affects everybody’s lives, and over the last 12 months, lung cancer claimed the lives of Pam Engler, the longtime partner of STAPLES Center President Lee Zeidman as well as the father of Heather Bardocz, the Kings’ Senior Director of Marketing.
Those are two more examples….and when there are members of the Kings family in need, supporters immediately step in.
It was true for Robitaille, who lost his mother Madeleine to liver cancer in May of 2013.
“The support we’re getting as a team, from everybody being aware of it, to AEG supporting us and giving us as much time as we want, makes it very special,” Robitaille said. “For me, it was really hard because I was flying every week to go see my mom in the last few weeks. So I’m grateful for that, that we work with the right kind of people that accept that and understand that family is the most important. From that standpoint, I’m very grateful.
“My father-in-law is ill right now with the same disease. It’s the same thing I told them and Dan Beckerman. I said ‘I’m going to be going there,’ he’s in Utah last weekend and took a couple days and saw him. And then Dan called me to see how he was doing.
“It’s just the way it is here.”
The tireless battle continues, on and off the ice. Camaraderie, resolve and teamwork are helping the Kings kick cancer.