PHILADELPHIA -- No matter how old Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Michael Del Zotto gets, he'll never forget the smile he saw every time his grandmother opened the door to greet him.
"Whenever we'd go over there for Thanksgiving, or even just a normal Sunday dinner, lunch, she'd always have a smile on her face opening the door to greet me," he said. "Even being young, that's one thing I won't forget."
Del Zotto was 9 years old when Luisa Valente, his maternal grandmother, died from cancer. She'll be at the front of Del Zotto's thoughts when the Flyers hold Hockey Fights Cancer night against the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).
Growing up in the Toronto suburb of Stouffville, Ontario, Del Zotto, now 26, and his grandmother were very close.
"Coming from an Italian background we have a very close family," he said. "I grew up with my family and my older brother and my dad's parents lived with us, and then my aunt and uncle lived next door with my other grandparents. So we pretty much were together all the time.
"Both my parents worked so any time they were at work, and my aunt and uncle worked as well, I was at one of my grandparents' house. They always took care of me, whether it was picking me up from school, cooking for me. Having a home-cooked Italian meal, can't get much better than that."
Front row left to right: Michael Del Zotto, grandmother Luisa Valente, brother David Del Zotto / Back row left to right: Cousins Vanessa and Nadia Gorro
Del Zotto said Luisa initially was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 40 but beat it and remained healthy for 16 years. But the cancer returned and spread to her lungs. She was 64 when she died.
But he has his memories, which include a rich Italian cuisine.
"My mom cooked all the time, but with her working and my dad working, both sets of grandmas were around to cook for me," he said. "I didn't miss a meal and it was quality. … Every meal, you're never leaving complaining or with an empty stomach."
Valente wasn't a big hockey fan, but as Del Zotto said, "She was a Michael fan. Didn't matter what I was doing, she was a fan of mine. That's what grandmothers are for, they're there to take care of you."
Del Zotto won't be able to score a goal for his grandmother Wednesday as he continues to recover from a lower-body injury sustained during the preseason. But she'll still be at the front of his mind.
"Still have very fond memories of her taking care of me, always being there for me and so loving, so affectionate," he said. "Always there to help me. It's a special day for me. Unfortunate that I can't play for it. But I know she's always watching down on me and wishing me the best."